The Mall turned into an open-air church and convention center yesterday, as thousands of celebrants streamed onto the grassy fields between the Washington Monument and the Capitol to sway to gospel music, network for jobs, get physical exams and hear a thunderous Texas preacher talk frankly about family and pop culture.
For the 19th consecutive year, the National Council of Negro Women hosted the Black Family Reunion Celebration, a typically jubilant affair that yesterday was tinged with mournfulness because it coincided with the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Preachers and attendees during the morning's opening ceremonies said their religion is as important as ever in keeping the black family strong and staying united amid the world's problems. The festival celebrates the strengths and traditional values of the African American family and features themed family-oriented pavilions, ethnic foods and an arts-and-crafts marketplace. The reunion continues today on the Mall from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The event kicked off in revival fashion with Rickey Payton, music minister from New Bethel Church of God in Christ in the District, revving up the crowd with keyboard music and a slew of exhortations: "Praise the Lord! I wish I had a witness up here! Let 'em hear you out on Capitol Hill! Shout Hallelujah!"
Liturgical dancers clad in glittering garments danced and whirled to the three-part harmonies booming from a huge choir, all shown on a giant TV monitor.
But the crowd arrived early to catch Bishop T.D. Jakes, a pastor from the Potter's House sanctuary in Dallas, where thousands of church members have been known to download his sermons on laptops via data jacks in the pews. Jakes, a huge man dressed sharply in a dark suit, had the audience so rapt, people stopped fanning themselves in the heat.
Jakes opened his sermon by saying he came with "mixed emotions" and it would be "impossible and remiss" for him not to mention the Sept. 11 attacks.
"My first impulse that day was to check on my family," he said. "It is in days of crises and challenges that we sustain our families . . . that we embrace them."
He then launched into a lively exhortation urging people to stop buying music laced with violence and sex and saying that families need men to take charge of the household.
"I want you to know there's a new sheriff in town!" Jakes bellowed. "And a new generation of African Americans rising! Anybody got rising on their minds this morning?" He continued: "The Jews are not the only chosen people of God! Scoot over. I'm going to sit on that bus, too!"
After his address, people browsed the tents where various organizations distributed literature on health problems and job opportunities. One group targeting underage drinking allowed people to try on blurred ski goggles to show what their vision might be like after several beers.
The Black Family Reunion was started in 1986 by Dorothy Height, now 92, a noted civil rights activist -- everyone calls her Queen Mother -- and president emeritus of the Washington-based nonprofit group National Council of Negro Women. About 15 corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Freddie Mac and Whirlpool, helped cover the costs of the $500,000 reunion, said Cheryl Cooper, the council's executive director. The Washington Post is also a sponsor.
Cooper said she expected about 500,000 people to attend the event, with an extra boost because it coincided with Congressional Black Caucus weekend events.
Cooper said one of her main goals is to attract a younger generation of women to the 69-year-old organization. The National Council of Negro Women is launching chapters on college campuses, and for the first time, the council sent about 25 women ages 18 to 25 to both the Democratic and Republican conventions.
"We are getting younger women engaged in the organization," said Cooper, but "a lot of the younger generation fails to see the relevance today. So we are repositioning our activities to a younger crowd."
Some people headed straight for several booths offering fried fish, funnel cakes and other festival fare. Others took advantage of the free physicals and underwent tests for kidney disease, heart disease and HIV.
In the job networking tent, a handful of people fired questions at Wanda H. Fells, a supervisor with the Virginia Employment Commission. One woman asked her for tips on condensing her resume.
"Yeah, I got tips," Fells told her. "Here's my card."
Everyone in the tent took one.