USAir Arena was packed with more than 10,000 people shouting, giving each other high-fives and praising God yesterday as Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church celebrated the end of a revival week for men.
For 15 years, the Fort Washington church has held this program for men to examine their faith and to help them be responsible employees at work and loving husbands and fathers at home.
The lure is religion mixed with brotherhood and, at times, an atmosphere that resembles a sporting event.
"Are there any blessed brothers in the house? Are there any blessed brothers in the house? Say Glory!" shouted Ebenezer's senior pastor, the Rev. Grainger Browning. Browning and his wife and co-pastor, Jo Ann Browning, have watched their Fort Washington flock grow from 17 to 15,000 members since their first Men's Day in 1984. The Pentecostal-style services include times when congregants and the ministers speak in tongues.
Yesterday's services at the arena began with a procession of 2,000 men dressed in black suits and gold ties who marched in and sat together to show spiritual unity while their families watched from seats above. For three hours they jumped up and down, sang, prayed and at times even cried.
Larnell B. Exum, an Army major, first came to Ebenezer as a visitor with his fiancee five years ago. At the time he was highly skeptical of such an outward shows of emotion and repentance.
"To watch brothers worship and cry and pray and hug each other was something that I had never seen before," Exum said. "Initially I was a skeptic. I am from Norfolk, this was unheard of where I am from. I was saying that it's not real."
The revival, which began last Monday night, opened on a serious tone as 2,000 men and women gathered at the Fort Washington sanctuary to reflect, repent and get closer to God.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant concluded a sermon on men taking responsibility for their actions by asking that "every single mother that doesn't get child support come forward."
As dozens of women came forward, Bryant said: "Brothers, we have work to do. I want every man in this building to come down the aisle and put child support money in their hands." That night, not only did about 50 women get fistfuls of cash, the men pledged to be fathers to their children.
For two nights after that, husky men cried, former drug dealers crooned sweet harmony and gospel music boomed. Then on Thursday and Friday, the men attended a two-day seminar in Leesburg, where they discussed faith, family, finance and fitness.
"There is a calling of a whole generation of men who are determined to not repeat the cycles of frustrations of not having a father figure in the house," said Byron Cage, 36, Ebenezer's minister of worship and a nationally known gospel recording artist. "I am the product of a single family. My mom raised me when dad left."
Bryan Burt, 24, a Rockville stockbroker, said he was attracted to Ebenezer because of the sincerity of the men at the church. Before coming to the church, Burt said, he was involved in bad relationships with women and didn't know how his life could get better. "I didn't know what the answers were, but I found it right here," Burt said. "Brothers here come straight from the heart with the experiences they have been through. It is not just 'God said this' or 'God said that.' It is, 'God took me through this' and 'God took me through that.' "
Ebenezer AME, founded in 1856, is an outgrowth of Mount Zion Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgetown. Ebenezer was one of the original African American congregations in Georgetown, but in 1983, the church moved to Maryland after membership fell to 30.
Grainger and JoAnn Browning came to the church in May 1983.
Even though the church has more than 100 ministries, Browning said, "the most productive evangelism is when I witness to you. It is not just what I say; it is the evidence of the things that you see. . . . Our goal is to equip men to be agents of change."
CAPTION: Cedric Moore, of Ebenezer AME Church, joins others at Men's Day at USAir Arena. The annual event outgrew the church's 3,000-seat sanctuary.