By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
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.
"I volunteered for the Prayer Team just to get the free T-shirt," one of the men shares with me, as I high-five him.
The Prayer Team Leaders, who both seem giddy, give a briefing.
"Put your hand on them, but not inappropriately," the giddy Leader explains, demonstrating by placing his hands on the other Prayer Team Leader's shoulder, and then his back.
"Can you demonstrate what would be inappropriate?" I ask.
"Should we have our Bibles with us to quote specific passages?" interrupts a man holding, well, the Bible.
"Let God give you the words," the Prayer Team Leader offers in an effort to keep things moving.
"All right!" I enthusiastically scream, being this is the pep talk before the big game and I want to go to the playoffs. "You tell 'em!"
"When they make the altar call, that's when we're going to have the big rush," he adds. I imagine it will be like when Denny's is hit with the after-bar crowd.
"Should we put a time limit on our praying?" I inquire.
"Take your time with it," he says. "Most of all, have some fun out there."
"Yeah! Woo!" I scream, pumping my fist. "Take your time with it. That's right."
The hardened man next to me looks over, so I offer him a high-five.
"OK, I want everyone to pair up, so you can give a little prayer for one another."
I look around. Should my prayer partner be the creepy guy with the mustache or the Sunday school teacher to my right? Overthinking the situation, I realize I'm the only one without a prayer partner. The others already have their hands on one another, heads bowed, and are getting down to some serious praying. I have a dejected look like the last one chosen for kickball.
The two Prayer Team Leaders, hands on shoulders about to pray, look over at me.
"Martin, come on over here," they say with big, aw-shucks goofy grins.
I scamper across the hall like a puppy about to get his stomach rubbed. With hands on each other's shoulders, we form a prayer threesome. We're supposed to take turns and pray with each other for strength. While they do this, I've taken it upon myself to say random stuff and repeat it.
A Leader begins: "Oh Lord, please show Martin that we're a crazy bunch, but we follow your path ...."
"Crazy bunch. Oh Lord, crazy bunch!" I exclaim. "Evil days! Evil days!"
When finished, we take turns hugging each other. Why? Because we're men with men. Not gay men, of course, but men in the way God intended us, and because of that we're not afraid to hug. Again, there's nothing gay about it. High-five!
With a multimedia array of arena-size video visuals and lights in a manly U2 style, a Christian power-rock band called the Newsboys kicks things off, causing one of the volunteers to do a crazy, spinning, filled-with-Jesus Grateful Dead dance.
"How many people here are pastors' sons?" questions the lead singer with an Australian accent, as a few hands go up. "Security," he adds in joshing fashion to gosh-darn chuckles.
Then, projected on a large video screen, comes tonight's master of ceremonies -- the self-proclaimed "Brother like no other," a large, black, hip hop guy whose catchphrase, for some reason, is "Ight!" MC Reggie Dabbs gave them the word, and it was "Ight" (short for "all right").
"What's up! How many is this your first Promise Keepers?" the Brother like no other asks, making a stage entrance.
Huge hoots and hollers!
"Ight!" says the Brother like no other.
"Ight!" scream 10,000 men.
"Now you're talking black."
"This is the Promise Keepers, men in the house," explains Dabbs, telling it like it is. "We're not looking for losers ...." Surprisingly, no, he explains, the Promise Keepers are only looking for winners.
Then, without much of a segue, "One of my favorite books as a kid was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," he says, pimping for applauds. Confusingly, we then watch a five-minute trailer for the upcoming Disney film The Chronicles of Narnia. I'm not sure of the connection, other than maybe sometimes Jesus needs a corporate sponsor, too.
"I tell y'all, that's the book I grew up with," says the Brother like no other. "It's all about stories. How about that Spider-Man?" Huge, thunderous applause, followed by a joke about a little white boy. "Or Lord of the Rings?" Bigger thunderous applause. Then, "But the greatest story ever written was written by God!"
A serious hush runs through the crowd of 10,000 men. One of the Prayer Team Leaders catches me by surprise, squeezing my shoulder, which scares the hell out of me. Momentarily forgetting, I give him a what-the-hell-are-you-doing-that-for look, as he moves on to squeeze other volunteers' shoulders.
"God has a plan in his hand to write about tonight," Dabbs states. "It's time to say, 'Wake up!'"
Judging by the noise, one would think the Sharks just won the Stanley Cup.
And then a manly SportsCenter-like update, "Eleven to seven, Angels are winning."
Huge, manly cheers from the men; cheers bigger than for the Messiah, though the angels Dabbs refers to are not in heaven along with Jesus, but on the baseball field in the playoffs. "I'm not messing with the Raiders fans. I got death threats last year." (Death threats are not very Jesus-like.)
"Raiders! Raiders!" I scream, throwing a high-five to a guy wearing a T-shirt that proclaims "Break the Chains."
The game scores are followed by a man who tells of the pain of a life of drugs and alcohol. Finding Jesus caused him to break the chains. To symbolize this, he does some sort of interpretive dance/escape artist act with smoke machines and an array of lights, while wrapped in chains, rolling on the ground, and at one point dramatically putting a gun in his mouth.
"That's pretty wild," remarks the Prayer Team Leader, squeezing my shoulder.
Amongst the testosterone revelry, a lone woman walks through the crowd. What the hell is she doing here? There's nothing here for her -- this is a men-only event. A guy wearing a black T-shirt that simply reads "God" on the back shoots her a strange look.
"There's a Prayer Booth. There's brothers ready to pray for you. They are like dogs ready to attack," the Brother like no other tells the crowd. "If you need someone to pray for you, there's about 10 guys in back who make up the Prayer Team. Give a wave guys."
We the Prayer Team give a wave to the crowd of 10,000 men. I pump my fist in the air, then high-five fellow volunteers.
After a confusing boxing sketch by the Awaken Drama Team, I take a break from the sweaty, pumped-up male-adrenaline arena action to explore some of the booths set up on the concourse. I pass the leather-clad, long-bearded Harley-Davidsons for Christ booth, then encounter two elderly gentlemen who could easily pass for closeted queens.
"Sign our petition?" asks one of the queeny gentlemen under a banner that reads "Values Matter."
"What's this for?" I ask.
"It's to keep marriage between a man and a woman," he explains with a tight upper lip, saying that men shouldn't be with other men -- except in the case of the Promise Keepers, of course.
"It's so scary what could happen," I say, signing the petition with the name Satan's Big Cock. For encouragement, I give a mighty finger snap. "You go, girl!"
He stands there for several seconds until I offer him a manly high-five.
A crusty man in a yellow button-down shirt is running a booth adorned with logos from all the big television networks, endorsing the Media Leader Prayer Calendar. He explains: "You find today's date and you pray for the media leader and the cultural celebrity listed. You pray for the cast and crew of TV programs or for music group members."
"Seriously," I add with bewilderment.
Grabbing their newsletter, I read: "Jennifer Aniston is turning towards faith. Unfortunately the faith is Buddhism. ... Becoming involved in Buddhism isn't going to fill the hole left by Brad Pitt ... or anyone else. Pray for Jennifer Aniston."
"Each of these people are one miracle away from a vital faith in God," the crusty man says without a smile or irony. The deal is that the praying will help the celebrity find his needed relationship with God. Nine different prayers are to be utilized to change Hollywood sinners and persuade them to clean up their act for the betterment of the Christian good. Strangely, a large majority of the names offered are Jewish (heathens). Looking at the list, on this day we are supposed to pray for director M. Night Shyamalan and what's-the-deal-with-airlines comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
"Can you mix and match which celebrities you want to pray for on any given day? Like, could I pray today for the Wayan brothers and, say, Mel Gibson?" The Passion of the Christ director, it's explained, doesn't need praying for. I look at the list again. On tomorrow's plate: Russell Simmons and The Simpsons. Do they know The Simpsons is only a cartoon?
"Does the praying work?" I ask, concerning one of the most asinine things I've ever heard of.
"We've been noticing quite an impact, quite an impact," the crusty man says with unsmiling confidence, stating how they're trying to arrange to meet with such media leaders as über-conservative Rupert Murdoch -- a devout Christian.
"Do you want to get on our mailing list?" asks the crusty man.
Once again I sign "Satan's Big Cock" with the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Who's this?" I ask a woman (yes, a woman) running a booth with such DVDs for sale as Tolerate This and A Christian Unleashed.
"He's a comedian," the woman (not a man) replies with a snicker. "You're going to see him later tonight."
From inside the sweltering arena, the Brother like no other announces, "If you think I'm funny, here's a guy who will rock your world."
Out comes Brad Stine -- a blond, high-energy comedian who slightly resembles Denis Leary. My world isn't necessarily rocked as I watch him perform hack material about the differences between men and woman.
"Girls yell. Guys scream," Stine astutely points out to big, manly laughs, then hilariously relays how men, unlike women, love plasma-screen TVs.
"It's funny because it's true," I share with the Promise Keeper volunteer next to me, who agrees.
"God made man first so he can practice!" (So true!)
More large, manly laughs.
"Guys love women," the Christian comic declares, suddenly getting serious. "That's what makes you a man!"
No laughs this time, just a big round of affirming applause, mixed with hoots and hollers.
Then, strangely, the comedian segues into a bitter rant about being a Christian comic trying to make it in the heathen world of mainstream stand-up.
"I wanted to show that clean was cutting edge," he spews. "There's so much Christian bigotry in the country. It's the only religion that would have me!"
Ten thousand big, manly laughs once again, as the Prayer Team Leader once again rubs my shoulder, which starts to creep me out.
"Seventeen years in the business. I wanted a TV show. I wanted a recording contract. I wanted to do movies. I was doing the thing I was good at, which is stand-up comedy, and I was not at peace," he says as the arena crowd grows silent. "I gave up my Hollywood dream to play for Christians." Why? "I wanted Christians to have the best there is!"
So is he saying if the Hollywood thing would have worked out, Jesus, obviously, might have taken a big back seat to hosting Family Feud?
With building passion, he ignites, "In these three years, I've had more mainstream media, major recording deals, a large agency sign me ...."
Jesus, it's implied, is a much better agent than William Morris.
"God said, 'The reason I want you to put your dream out of the way is because it's too small!'"
"Wooo! Wooo!" shouts the crowd of men.
"USA! USA!" I shout, erupting into a rapid high-five-ing machine. "USA!"
Sure, he just got 10,000 men to applaud, but boy, this Christian comedian sucks. It's all hackneyed jokes, bitterness, and boasting mixed with a serious part about religion in the end.
As two paramedic women, totally uninterested, loudly converse, a man in an "Iron Sharpens Iron" T-shirt barks, "Can you ask them to be quiet," almost venting his distaste for the gentler sex.
The large men in the stands continue to wolf down greasy concession stand food as two motorcycle gang members, scarred, covered with tattoos, wearing "Messengers Jesus Reigns" jackets, make their way through the crowd.
"Has anyone needed the Prayer Booth yet?" I ask the Prayer Team Leader.
"It's been kind of slow," he replies, then squeezes my shoulder.
Then comes a weird meld of religion and patriotism with a segment called "The Epic Battle for a Man's Soul."
"I'm not over the hill, I am the hill," says a roly-poly man resembling comedian Louie Anderson in a video clip, pointing to his stomach. He's a Vietnam vet who's had half his face blown off in combat. It doesn't get more manly than a Nam vet who's fallen on a grenade.
A request is made for all the other Vietnam vets to stand up along with those who served in Iraq, harvesting a huge, loud standing ovation. I didn't realize that Jesus was pro-war.
"Jesus and USA! Jesus and USA!" I chant.
The vet's shtick starts out funny, then segues into graphically describing what it's like to fall on an enemy grenade. And then: "I might make some statements some of you might not like," he says in regard to the 9/11 attacks and the Muslim religion. He then explains that he has the right to make these upcoming statements because he had half his face blown off in Vietnam. I assume the statements are going to be slightly racist. Ten thousand men grow silent.
"They don't have the same God as us. Their God says, 'Give me your son.' Our God says, 'Here is my son!'" he shouts.
A thunder of all-American screams and hollers echoes throughout, in a let's-kick-their-ass fashion. Rightfully so. I say screw those towel-headed bastards, because their actions are obviously due to a blatant lack of Christ (and not because of U.S. imperialistic foreign policies). Sure, good Christian George W. Bush said God told him to invade Iraq, then lied about the reason we went to war, but it's OK as long as it's for the betterment of spreading democracy and Christianity. Hell, it worked during the Spanish Inquisition.
I chant: "Jesus and USA! Jesus and USA!"
"Are you ready for Jesus? Let's get it on," the war vet screams in a WWE are-you-ready-to-rumble fashion. Like Gen. Patton leading the Third Army into the Battle of the Bulge. "Father, I've come home!" he hollers.
Inspirational music builds. Men, and then groups of men, come down the hockey arena aisles, arms around each other. It's the altar call.
"There's an ex-wife beater here tonight, an ex-drug addict, an ex-homosexual. Come on down!" More men, hesitant at first, trek down the stairs and parade toward the front. They form a line and make their way to the altar in the place normally used for the Sharks' home goal and the stage where Depeche Mode will be performing next week.
"As a man, I'm expecting you to do what's right before God," the war vet declares.
"If you're a man, start walking right now!" I almost expect him to call those who don't a big pussy. "Some of you came with a friend tonight. Well, you can leave with a brother."
A man of great girth, wearing a "Live to Die, Die to Live" T-shirt, chews tobacco and intensely listens, spitting into a cup. As the numbers start to dwindle, the war vet then explains another long, graphic story about having third-degree burns and his nurse named Rosie who saved his life. He requests that everyone turn to the person next to him. "Look them in the eye and say, 'I'm your Rosie.'" The music once again builds. "The second wave of the miracle is going to happen!" he shouts.
Another sea of men starts parading toward the front. It appears more than 300 men are coming forth to direct their lives toward Christ. Each of the men receives a copy of a new joint publication by the International Bible Society and the Promise Keepers, All About Jesus (as well as a high-five).
The Prayer Team Leader was right. After the altar call we, the Prayer Team, are slammed. It is Denny's after-bar rush, except it's the prayer rush. Men, groups of men, make their way over to the Prayer Booth area. Some have that desperate look in their eye like they need that immediate Prayer Booth fix. One right after the other, men requesting the Prayer Team line up, and suddenly there's a long line leading out into the arena.
Looking at the newly formed line, I freak out and scream to the other Prayer Team members, "We're swamped!"
"Do you want to lead people on your own?" asks the Prayer Team Leader, nervously looking at the large line.
"You know, maybe it's best if I pair up with someone so they can show me the ropes," I say, being I have no idea how it's done. I'm paired up with the tall, silver-haired man who looks like a Sunday school teacher. We're a team, like one of those crazy mismatched buddy cop movies with the hardened veteran and the rookie. A young, curly-haired man comes over to us as we escort him behind the Prayer Team curtain.
"What is it you want us to pray with you for tonight?"
The curly-haired man is unsure how to express it in words.
"Is it pornography?" blurts the Sunday school teacher in a low voice.
"Yeah, pornography," I repeat more sternly, playing the bad cop in our Prayer Team situation.
"No," replies the curly-haired guy.
"Is it homosexuality?" I blurt in a more accusing manner, taking another stab at it.
"No!" he says in a louder voice, explaining he simply wants us to pray that he'll stay focused on school and stay clear of bad forces.
"Are you sure it's not homosexuality?" I repeat. It isn't.
The hands go on the shoulders, the eyes go shut, as we huddle up. Like freestyle rappers, we each take a turn at doing a spontaneous prayer for the curly-haired guy. When it's the Sunday school teacher's turn, I contribute by occasionally repeating various phrases he says, along with throwing in the intermittent "Yes! Yes!" and "Evil days! Evil days!" all in a monotone voice, while testing the limits of what would be an inappropriate touch.
When the Sunday school teacher hands over the mike to me, I simply start by plagiarizing his prayer, then throwing in a long mix about looking out for the Satan. The mention of the word "Satan" causes the Sunday school teacher to convulse and sort of jump back, letting out an almost orgasmic verbal moan. "Uhhhhh!"
I momentarily stop and open my eyes to see what the hell is going on. Thus, I keep mentioning Satan to get this Pavlovian response.
"Beware of Satan's forces!"
The Prayer Booth area is buzzing with various raised voices and Bible quotes.
Next up for us: a father-and-son combination.
"What is it you want us to pray for tonight?"
"Tell them what you did," says the father (a man) to his son (soon to be a man).
"I got in a fight at school," the son portion of the father-and-son team says with lowered head, giving the reason for the fight as some other kid "smack-talking" him.
Since I don't know any Bible passages, I try to lend authenticity by attempting to speak in Old English, as we once again huddle up.
"Oh Lord, protectith Trevor from the smack-talker. 'Cause blessed be he who turneth the other cheek to the smack-talkers. For the non-smack-talkers will inherit the Earth over the smack-talkers, for blessed be he who is a non-smack-talker."
For good measure, I make sure to mention Satan.
"How was that? Should I change it up a bit?!" I ask my partner after we all manly hug, and of course high-five, and then they leave.
"Just look for God to give you the words," is his only advice.
Taking that advice, I'll see what God comes up with for me on our next prayer victim.
"OK, try to speed it up a little bit," the Prayer Team Leader comes over and requests.
Thus enters a weaselly looking man with a thin mustache. Behind his back, the Prayer Team Leader makes the speed-it-up sign.
"What would you like for us to pray about for you?"
"My wife put a restraining order on me," the man proclaims.
Whoa. Is that something Jesus can fix?
Is a restraining order in the Jesus jurisdiction?!
In this case, the words that God gives me are the lyrics from the Journey song "Open Arms":
So now I come to you
With open arms ....
When finished, the guy with the restraining order starts crying. The Sunday school teacher says, "Come here," and gives him a hug. He turns toward me for the hugging ritual. I in turn offer a manly high-five.