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MEN AT PRAYER
PROMISE KEEPERS FLOCK TO CAPITAL FOR RELIGIOUS RALLY

Engulfed in a chorus of hundreds of thousands of deep male voices singing "Holy, Holy, Holy," Lonnie Horton of Buffalo bowed his head and cried tears of joy.

Seconds later, a man he had never met rushed over and gathered Horton in his arms. And as the two men, one black and one white, embraced, a third came by and gently draped his arm around Horton's waist while still singing with the choir.

That scene was repeated hundreds of times Saturday at one of the largest religious gatherings in American history, sponsored by Promise Keepers, a national men's movement.

During six hours of prayers, hymns and public confessions on the grassy Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, countless Promise Keepers vowed to be better leaders at home and better servants of God's churches.

Many said it was the most spiritual moment of their lives.

"This is so fulfilling," said Horton, 26, who came to Washington on a bus chartered by Bread of Life Church of South Buffalo. "The spirit is here with us. God is here. You can feel it in the breeze."

Crowding together shoulder-to-shoulder in summery sunshine, the Promise Keepers filled every corner of the Mall and spilled out onto the side streets, all the while focusing on the giant video screens that broadcast the religious service taking place blocks away.

Police, tired of controversies about the size of crowds at Washington events, refused to give a crowd estimate, and so did the event's organizers. But the crowd appeared to dwarf that of the Million Man March of two years ago, which drew 400,000, according to police, or 800,000, according to organizers.

Saturday's event was called Stand in the Gap, after a biblical passage in the Book of Ezekiel in which God calls for a man to stand "in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it (the nation)."

And the massive prayer meeting did indeed have the future of America as its subtext.

But it was not a call to political action. Ignoring politics entirely, preacher after preacher said the key to national salvation is spiritual salvation, in every home in the land.

"We believe that the ultimate answer to the moral crisis of society is not in partisan agendas, but living truth," said Promise Keepers President Randy Phillips. "We have nothing to offer any special-interest group but the same mercy and grace that is available to all in the Bible, God's written revelation of faith and practice."

Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney promised to spread that word over the next two years in dozens of rallies in football stadiums and arenas across the country. While previous Promise Keepers events charged a $60 admission fee, the new rallies, leading up to massive gatherings in state capitals on Jan. 1, 2000, will be free.

"We don't just want believers at these events," said McCartney, a former college football coach, in a late-afternoon speech that was half-sermon, half-pep talk. "Bring the lost. Bring the lukewarm. The Holy Lord is going to show up, and he's going to grab 'em!"

McCartney called on his flock to go home and give their "time, treasures and talents" to their churches.

"We're going to meet the needs of our communities," he said. "Men, get excited about that! That's when God's going to move!"

Earlier in the day, preachers -- never identified by name -- exhorted the throngs of men to pray for forgiveness for forsaking God, for sexual wrongdoing and for abandoning and abusing their families.

Time and again, at the call of the preacher, thousands of men lay before the huge altar in front of the Capitol, privately confessing their sins. Each time, the huge crowd fell eerily silent until the preacher spoke again.

It was just the catharsis that many of the men said they needed.

"Men are afraid to cry, afraid to share their deeper feelings," said Dave Ettestad of Buffalo, who traveled to the rally with members of West Side Church of the Living Word. "But it's easier when you're here with all these other men. You see that real men do cry, that real mean do confess their sins."

Tim Nelson of Buffalo attended a previous Promise Keepers event at Rich Stadium. "I was one of the guys who did a lot of crying," he recalled. "God just turned my life around. I wasn't the father image before that, but now I am.

"Before, I could really care less about anything. I left the bills and everything for my wife to take care of. But now I know that the man is the one who should take care of it."

The Promise Keepers teach their followers that men should be leaders in their families -- a sentiment that prompted a counter-demonstration on a tiny triangle of grass near the Capitol.

"The Promise Keepers talk about men taking responsibility, but what they mean is taking charge," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. "I see the Promise Keepers, and I am afraid. I am very afraid, and I am very angry."

Phillips, the Promise Keepers' president, countered, "No woman should feel threatened by this gathering because the ground is level at the foot of the cross."

In light of McCartney's history of speaking out against abortion and fighting gay rights in his home state of Colorado, President Clinton acknowledged in his weekly radio address that some people have "political differences" with the Promise Keepers.

"But no one can question the sincerity of the hundreds of thousands of men who have filled football stadiums across our country and who are willing to reassume their responsibilities to the families and to their children and therefore to our future," Clinton said.

While the crowd was primarily white, racial reconciliation took center stage during a large portion of the service, with white pastors confessing the sin of ignoring the struggle for civil rights. Ministers of both races vowed to work to bring their churches together so that, in the words of one, "11 o'clock on Sunday morning won't be the most segregated time of the week anymore."

That's just one of the many wishes that both preachers and their flock made on Saturday.

"In the wake of what we're doing here, I hope that God will change our whole land," said Mark Lazzara of West Seneca. "We have so much violence. We have racial problems. I hope He helps us restore it to the glory it once was."

Men at Saturday's event agreed that Promise Keepers, which have attracted 2.6 million men to their stadium events since their formation in 1990, have to keep bringing men back to the fold to really make the country better.

"I hope this isn't just something that comes and goes," said David Grainge, director of the Buffalo Christian Center. "I hope it's not just a fad. I hope it's the beginning of a real revival."

News wire services contributed to this report.