The Show Place Arena was filled with preaching, prayers and thousands of people who went to Upper Marlboro yesterday for a spirited New Year's revival that is part of a growing trend of megachurch services.
Noel Jones, a Los Angeles preacher known for rapid-fire sermons, launched the three-day meeting last night, and evangelist T.D. Jakes is scheduled to deliver sermons tonight and tomorrow at the arena.
More than 5,000 people attended last night's revival, including dozens who waited in a downpour for the arena doors to open about 5:30 p.m.
"This shows that people are hungering and thirsting after righteousness," said Joseph Gray, 45, of Upper Marlboro, who attended the event after hearing it advertised on the radio.
The revival caps a busy worship season for Washington area churches, particularly some in Prince George's County, where a growing number of congregations have had to rent alternative space such as abandoned shopping centers and school gyms to make room for the expanded holiday services and unprecedented demand.
Some worshipers said they were drawn to the church this holiday season to pray in the face of a possible U.S. war against Iraq. Others said they joined worshipers to pray for a stronger economy and to give thanks for their own prosperity.
"This is a critical time for our nation, and we need to pray and be in the presence of God," said Bishop Alfred Owens, pastor of Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, who hosted the revival with the Rev. John Jenkins and members of First Baptist Church of Glenarden.
New Year's Eve Watch Night services and special sermons are popular during the holiday season and especially when people feel unsure about their lives or the world around them. But some ministers said this year's overflow crowds were unusual, though not unwelcomed.
Owens points to the sheer numbers of people who are making the revivals and special services so popular. While Owens and Jenkins both have spacious sanctuaries to accommodate their memberships of more than 5,000 each, Owens had to rent Constitution Hall in Washington for his New Year's Eve program this year and Jenkins had to rent the Show Place Arena for his larger-than-usual group of worshipers.
Betty Peebles, pastor of Jericho City of Praise in Landover, said her 10,000-seat sanctuary was packed for a New Year's program that lasted almost until daybreak. The scene was the same at Scriptural Cathedral in Northwest Washington, where Bishop C.L. Long hosted an all-night New Year's service.
"The situations today demand that we bring in New Year's by putting Jesus in our lives," said a sleepy Peebles, who was still recovering from her program, which in addition to preaching and a concert included a mass baptismal service.
At Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, which draws large Sunday crowds and even larger numbers of people for its special services, some would-be worshipers were turned away on New Year's Eve.
"We had to turn about 3,000 people away," said the Rev. Grainger Browning, pastor of Ebenezer AME. "We had about 6,000 people at our main sanctuary and another 2,000 youth at [nearby)] Crossland High School."
Geraldine Capehart, a Prince George's County schoolteacher from Temple Hills, said she felt compelled to attend the Ebenezer service.
"A year ago on New Year's Eve, I was in the hospital battling for my life, and I wanted to thank God this year for allowing me to live," she said.
During the celebration that rang in the millennium, Ebenezer packed US Airways Arena for the Watch Night service, but now that that venue has been demolished to make way for retail shopping, the Show Place Arena is about the only large-scale facility available to county churches.
Despite the challenges of handling the crowd, Browning sees the growing number of people coming out to special events organized by local churches as positive.
"I think more people are walking into a new faith this new year, not only because they are concerned about the rumors of war but because of the downturn in the economy," Browning said. "There is a lot of uncertainty now, and people want to have their faith grounded in the Lord."
Pamela Mumford of District Heights would concur.
Although she is not a member of a church, she went to the Show Place Arena yesterday, she said, so she can find her way.
"I'm looking for a new direction in my life," Mumford said. "I hope to find it by the time I leave here."