From a distance, Bill Gamble, 44, who owns flower shops in Reston and Arlington, looked like the typical little league baseball coach - with smartly tilted cap, clipboard and mirror-type dark glasses.
But up close, it was easy to see that this coach was different. The insignia on his cap read, "Jesus Loves You." And under one arm, he carried a large, black Bible.
"I guess you could say I'm a coach," said Gamble, who was at work last Saturday under a huge canvas tent pitched in a cow pasture near Front Royal, Va. "But I'm not here to teach people how to play baseball. I pray with them and tell them how to live a victorious life for Jesus."
Gamble was among 125 persons who volunteered to serve last week as spiritual counselors at Fishnett '77, a non-denominational gathering of more than 8,000 Christians and non-Christians who met on a farm in the Shenandoah River Valley for a three-day festival of singing and sermons.
A cow pasture, which sloped down to an outdoor stage, served as an amphitheater, where thousands sat from early morning until nearly midnight on blankets and in lawn chairs and in temperatures which sometimes rose above 100 degrees.
Not far from the stage were hundreds of parked cars, pickup trucks, church buses and vans, tents and camping trailers.
Fishnet, which was first held in 1975, is among a growing number of such meetings in the United States in which Christians come together to sing, pray and study the Bible in a festive setting.
The event is sponsored by Fishnet Ministries, Inc., of Richmond, a nonprofit organization created in 1974 to bring Christians together without regard to their denominational backgrounds!
"We believe there is a definite need for this kind of gathering in the Christian community to help break down some of the barriers created by denominations," said Rev. Larry Andes, president of Fishnet Ministries and an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God.
"Fishnet has a festive atmosphere, and it is an emotional time for all of us," said Andes, 30. "But there is a definite emphasis here on teaching basic Christian principles."
Lane Knox, 38, and his wife, Loretta, 33, of Olney, Md., spent the three days of Fishnet, which ended last Satureday, in a pop-up camping tailer thay borrowed from a friend for the occasion.
Saturday afternoon, they sat with others in a sea of out-stretched blankets, umbrellas and lawn chairs and thumbed through their Bibles as they followed the message of a speaker.
"This has been one of the greatest experiences of our lives," said Knox. "We've had to endure a lot of heat and dust these past three days, but the teaching we're getting makes it all worthwhile."
Speakers during the festival included David Wilkerson, who told of his successful efforts as an evangelist during the 1950s and 1960s to rehabilitate street gangs in New York City.
Another speaker, Elisabeth Elliot, delivered a message on "Knowing the Will of God."
A main emphasis of the Fishnet is its counselling program, in which 125 counselors of all ages meet in group or one-on-one sessions to talk with people who come into the huge counseling tent for spiritual help.
"People all over the country are finding that they are not happy with what they are doing with their life," said Phyllis Tobias, a counselor from Falls Church. "These people are watching world conditions - the wars, pollution, crime. They are beginning to ask themselves if there is another way to spend their lives.
"We're here to show them that there is another way. And that way is the way described in the Bible," said Mrs. Tobias.
Under a green and white striped tent on the other side of the Fishnet grounds, small childaren were also getting the message from the puppets of Otto and Vivian Dippold of Newark, Dela.
After a 20-minute puppet show, Mrs. Dippold asked seven children to volunteer and give testimonies about their encounters with Jesus.
Among the seven was Scott Bullock, 6, a resident of Wytheville, Va. "Jesus has done a lot for me," said Scott dressed in a red T-shirt and blue jeans. "My mom taught me all about Jesus when I was 3."
Mari Sorell, of Falls Church, came to Fishnet '77 to help three other people interpret songs and words into sign language for deaf people attending the festival.
"Deaf people are usually left aout of gatherings like this because they can't hear what's going on," she said. "But deaf people want to bw ministered to also. They love the Lord like the other people who've come to Fishnet. We interpret so they can enjoy along with everyone else."
Andrae Crouch, of Los Angeles, Calif., has been the main music attraction at Fishnet since its inception. Crouch, a recording artist who did 110 concerts in the United States and several foreign countries in 1976, said he believes that America is undergoing a "spirtitul awakening."
In the last few years, there has been a big spiritual sweep across the nation which has touched all segments of our society," he said. "We've seen people with vastly different backgorunds like Chuck Colson and Eldridge Cleaver step forward and say that they both love Jesus and that they are Christian brothers. Now there are a lot of people who want to find out about Jesus for themselves."
Crouch said that gatherings like Fishnet, which provides a Christian message in a casual and non-traditional church setting, provide a forum for people who want to know more about "what Christ is like" before they make a commitment.
Debbie Macuch, 17, of Sandy Spring, Md., said she had been looking for a summer job without success and came to Fishnet '77 to get her spirits lifted. "I needed to get away and get a new perspective on my life, " said Macuch, a recent graduate of Sherwood High School.
"The people here are beautiful," she said. "You can go to a supermarket and people just walk by. Nobody wants to talk to you. But here you know people care and they love you."