Many stood and swayed as singers belted out hymns. Some offered testimonials of their faith, while others raised their arms and shook their bodies in frenzied joy. Grasping Bibles and babies, they talked of relatives in Central and South America and contemplated the challenges of keeping faith and family across a great distance.
The scene at the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday was akin to a religious revival as thousands of Hispanic evangelical Christians took part in what clergy touted as the first Washington area gathering of Hispanic churches of Protestant denominations. The theme of the day was simple: Levantate al encuentro de tu Dios, or "Stand up to meet your God."
"If you have God in your heart, he's going to be with you everywhere, it doesn't matter the distance or anything," said Lizbeth Lemus, 20, who emigrated from El Salvador at age 6 and recently converted from Roman Catholicism to join a Protestant church in Sterling. Her husband, Dario Molina, 25, said the event reminded him of the throngs that went to hear the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart in Guatemala, where Molina lived until age 18.
"There are different churches, different cultures, but we are the same faith, we are together right now," said Maria Benavidez, 37, a Falls Church housecleaner who came with her family and a friend. Gesturing to her daughter, 12, and son, 11, she said, "When they know God, they won't easily do wrong."
Organizers said the assembly, which they estimated drew as many as 7,000 people, was partially a result of school shootings that highlighted the fragility of community bonds, especially among immigrants.
The Littleton, Colo., tragedy was "an eye-opener for all of us," said Pastor Jorge DeCasanova, of the Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield. "We are very concerned because our families are not tied together. We are working a lot--many, many hours--and we are losing touch with our kids. We are not giving them our family values."
The day-long service of prayers, songs and sermons was conducted almost entirely in Spanish. Many in the crowd were from Baptist, Pentecostal or charismatic congregations, although nondenominational Christians and Roman Catholics also participated.
Luis Oscar Torres, manager of Camino, Luz y Vida (The Way, the Truth and the Life), a local evangelical periodical, told the assembled clergy that they were "courageous to tell the congregations: Today, instead of one service in our churches, we are going to get together in unity."
DeCasanova said the event was similar to religiously inspired rallies held by the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March. Like those gatherings, yesterday's assembly emphasized individual responsibilities to families rather than a collective political goal.
"We as a minority are coming together with a Christ-centered call to unity," said Jose V. Mendez, executive director of the Global Evangelism Task Force, a sponsor of the event.
The gathering mixed old-fashioned praises and chanting with newfangled technology. Organizers said afternoon speeches and songs were broadcast via satellite to public television channels in Chile, Bolivia and Spain.