The ventriloquist told corny jokes about "Amazing Grace" from the stage, while a former football player sermonized about Jesus a few dozen yards away and kids lined up to choose from a selection of paste-on tattoos, including two that read "God Rocks" and "I Love Jesus."
Chris Miller, 41, reveled yesterday at the sight of the couples and families descending on the Mall for the finale of DC Festival, the $3.4 million gathering organized by Christian evangelical preacher Luis Palau.
"It's like a big outdoor church," said Miller, a Navy engineer who lives in Centreville. "It would be great to be able to do this all the time. We're more accepted when we're quiet about our faith. But this is an open pep rally kind of thing, and it's wonderful."
After rain led to the cancellation of some events Saturday, festival organizers said they were satisfied with yesterday's attendance, which they estimated at 50,000, even though it was about half of what they hoped to draw.
By early evening, a sprawling crowd assembled to hear Palau preach before the stage was commandeered by a hip-hop gospel ensemble and a rock group playing Christian music. "We're ecstatic about the turnout," said Kevin Palau, the preacher's son. "This is what a festival is like."
Indeed, in many ways the day resembled an oversize block party, with face-painting and jewelry-making booths, potato sack races, basketball hoops and a batting cage, a moon bounce and two guys dressed as Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato from "VeggieTales."
Yet the message of the Gospel was everywhere, not so much in religious imagery but in words. From the skateboarding arena to the children's theater, performers spoke of their love of Jesus and how it helped them overcome troubles, including addictions to alcohol and drugs.
"We go out to play for His honor, His glory and His grace," Jamey Carroll, an infielder for the Washington Nationals, told a crowd at the sports ministry tent. "He's the number one fan in the stands."
A few hundred yards away, a ventriloquist interspersed his humorous act with the sober reminder that "the Bible says without God, our life is lost."
Over at the skateboarding and biking rink, the emcee shouted, "Praise God! Praise God!" before "skate pastor" Jay Haizlip told of how discovering Jesus gave him the strength to overcome a taste for cocaine and marijuana.
Standing in the audience, John Reade, 47, the owner of a Long Island construction company, grinned as he balanced his 2-year-old son, Daniel, on his shoulders.
"Americans are searching for something, people are searching for something: real peace," he said. "The more people that are here, the more that are exposed to the message of Jesus Christ. And without the message, they're not going to heaven."
For many, the festival's high points were Palau's sermons, which ended with invitations to the audiences to raise their hands and accept Jesus. In preparation for that moment, organizers had recruited volunteer counselors, training them at 90-minute sessions to help guide those trying to express their faith.
Barbara Bigelow, 38, an assistant to a department head at the National Transportation Safety Board, was among the 3,500 volunteers. Wearing a white "Luis Palau" visor, she wandered through the crowds, ready to counsel anyone who wanted it.
Bigelow, an Upper Marlboro resident who grew up in the District, was raised in a religious household. She said she embraced her faith with a new vigor 10 years ago after her husband John, the father of her two oldest children, learned he had AIDS. He died in 1997.
"It sustained me," said Bigelow, a member of the New Samaritan Baptist Church in Northeast.
On Saturday, she stood in the rain and mud for six hours to fulfill her counseling role, reaching for the sky, nodding and clapping when a musical performer, Dave Lubben, told the small crowd, "Jesus Christ is alive in Washington, D.C., today."
When Palau preached, Bigelow positioned herself near the stage, prepared to make her way to anyone who raised his or her hand when the preacher invited people to declare their commitment to the Gospel.
"If you don't have Jesus Christ and you die, you will be lost forever," Palau said. He instructed those in the audience to turn to their right and ask their neighbor if they wanted to pray together.
Bigelow turned to Jason Kim, 21, of Manassas. Kim accepted her offer, then led two friends, Youjung Lee, 22, and Jieun Lee, 21, to a tent. Bigelow gave them study Bibles and gathered them in a huddle for prayer.
"I'm thankful that you accepted God today," she told them. "God bless you."
After they walked away, Bigelow trudged back toward the stage, smiling. "A soul is saved, and there's another witness for Christ," she said. "They can now spread the word."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.