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The first thing one notices when walking toward HP Pavilion in San Jose is males -- nothing but big groups of men. Not sissy-boy men, but manly men. The kind who go to big sporting events and watch the playoff game with their buddies, not to mention men who are lovin' the Jesus.
On this night the womenfolk are made to stay at home; it's guys only, as the testosterone pumps in the large sports arena where the Sharks play hockey, and it is all in the name of the Lord. Yes, titled "Calling Men to an Unpredictable Adventure" -- these are the Promise Keepers!
"If you want to truly change the world, change the men," states the Promise Keepers' literature. (Sorry, ladies.) This weekend is designed to "expose a list of lies of the world against our manhood." Holy shit, not only are people lying to men, but manhood is also on the line!
Who started the Promise Keepers in 1990? Why, the head coach of the University of Colorado football team, of course -- a manly man doing a manly profession. As far as filling arenas goes, the Promise Keepers are the AC/DC of men-only, Jesus-centered events. Touring 20 cities around the country, with ticket prices at $89, filling up larger outdoor stadiums with upward of 40,000 people, the Promise Keepers are holy big business.
What separates me (a man) from most of these men (not women) is I'm in the inner circle for this weekend's arena event. That's right, phoning a few days earlier, I volunteered to be on the Promise Keepers Prayer Team.
"Do you have experience putting your hands on men and praying for them?" the Prayer Team Leader asked.
"Yeah. This morning as a matter of fact," I replied. "I put my hands on men and pray all the time!"
Highly pleased with my response, he put me on the team. "You're going to see some wild things," he added.
"What kind of things?" I asked, wondering if it would involve a big religious circle jerk.
"Transgressions, speaking in tongues, guys confessing to homosexuality, alcohol problems ...."
"Cool! Bring it on," I responded. I paused and then yelled: "Woo!"
Some folks (we'll call them the critics) say that the Promise Keepers are a component of the religious and political right; a Trojan horse, if you will, for the advancement of ultraconservative patriarchy. For instance, Promise No. 4 calls for men to reclaim their leadership role in the family. In a Promise Keepers book, a section titled "Reclaiming Your Manhood" reads: "Sit down with your wife and say something like this: 'Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now, I must reclaim that role.' ... I'm not suggesting you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back. ... There can be no compromise here. If you're going to lead, you must lead."
That's why I'm going cunningly undercover in a manly Promise Keepers volunteer persona that will show not only that I can be a pumped-up member of the Prayer Team, but, most important, that I can also be a real man or perhaps reclaim my manhood!
Name: Martin Manly.
Hobbies: Doing one-handed push-ups.
Costume: Red, white, and blue patriotic tracksuit; baseball cap.
Catchphrase: Go Niners and Jesus!
Goal: To high-five as many men as possible.
Inside the packed arena, it's a big sausagefest for the Lord. The men file into the stands surrounding the large stage with the same anticipation as those arriving for the big game; to some, this is the big game. Ten thousand men in sports jerseys and baseball caps, mostly big-bellied, sit in the hockey arena's stands, shoveling down pizza and nachos. This is just like The Man Show, but without women on trampolines, because it's men only. I expect the concession stand to sell big "Jesus Is No. 1" Styrofoam fingers and beer hats to drink red wine -- the blood of Christ. It must be really great for these guys to sit around, eat shitty food, fart if they want to, and learn about Jesus with their buddies.
"Git 'er done!" I hear someone yell from the stands.
Already checked in at the volunteer station, I've exchanged my patriotic track top for a manly blue official "Promise Keepers -- the Awakening" T-shirt and an all-access badge that reads "Martin." Passing large men in sports team shirts with their hands full of nachos and popcorn, I make my way toward a large sign that reads "Prayer Booth." Much like a kissing booth, it's an area set up with several curtains, where those wishing to be prayed with can do so in privacy, led by us, the Prayer Team.
"I'm here as a volunteer for the Prayer Team," I proclaim to an enthusiastic man. "Woo!"
"Great. We'll be having a briefing at 6," he enthusiastically says, putting his hand on my back. I throw him a high-five.
Roughly 12 older gentlemen -- some looking like they've had some hard living before meeting Jesus, others looking like they teach Sunday school -- are brought into the bowels of the arena, corralled in the narrow hallway. One mustached man, who might be mistaken for talking to himself, is actually praying. All of us are adorned in matching blue Promise Keepers Volunteer T-shirts. We, the Prayer Team, are the elite squadron on hand to satisfy the entire arena's praying needs.