Rappers and pastors, spoken word poets and authors appealed Saturday to thousands of evangelicals gathered around the Washington Monument in baking heat to recommit to prayer and hope at a time of intense racial and political polarization and growing secularism.
People streamed into prayer tents, asking volunteers for prayers to “reset” their lives, their families, their country. They got on their knees by the thousands, appealing to God to “break racism” at the call of charismatic evangelist Lou Engle, one of dozens of preachers in the hours-long lineup. They told personal stories of division in their lives that brought them to America’s capital for what aimed to be one of the bigger faith outreach events in the United States in years. Possibly an entire Bible’s worth of verses was written on the t-shirts in the crowd.
The event, scheduled to last from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., ended just after 4 p.m. because of the excessive heat. U.S. Park Police and Nick Hall, who organized the event, said that emergency medical technicians were overwhelmed by a large number of people who passed out in the heat.
Hall told the crowd that the hastened ending was all right: “It was never about coming to the Mall. It was always about being sent from the Mall,” he said. “This is about sending a generation out from the Mall who are saying, ‘God, we wanna go — we wanna give everything for Jesus.'”
In the seven hours the event lasted, attendees heard impassioned prayers, sermons, songs, raps and poetry about unity in faith.
Calling people to their knees on the grass, Engle shouted references to Minneapolis, Ferguson and Dallas — now shorthand for America’s modern-day racial violence, places where police killed black men and where, more recently, a black soldier gunned down five white police officers.
In the audience was Heather Crowe, who came from Pennsylvania with her daughter and other female relatives seeking healing. Recently neighbors and even relatives had chided her 18-year-old daughter for dating an African-American, saying “Are you serious?” Between that and the recent police-involved killings, she said a big Christian concert suddenly seemed needed. Her family is white.
“It became more apparent we needed to be here, to feel like we were united,” Crowe said. Of her daughter, who is heading to college this fall, she said: “As a mother, you’re anxious for what the future holds for her. I’ve always told her to be a light in the darkness.”
The event, called “Together,” featured some of the biggest-name musicians and evangelists in contemporary evangelical Christianity. It was aimed at more theologically conservative young evangelicals, with organizers calling it a “reset” for Christians who feel exhausted from battling the mainstream culture and sidelined by secularism.
“I think a lot of believers that are teenagers feel that they’re the only Christian on their [sports] team, the only Christian who works at the McDonald’s where they work.” The huge concert-style gathering shows these young people “the church is alive,” Mark Hall, a youth pastor who is the lead singer of the rock band Casting Crowns, said after their set. “Teenagers need moments.”
Hall said the timing of the long-planned event, falling amid violent events worldwide, was fated. “It’s something that God saw coming. He saw that we were gonna need it.”
A new poll by Pew Research showed 41 percent of “evangelical or born-again” Protestants say it has become more difficult to be an evangelical Christian in the U.S. in recent years; 34% answered the question the same way in September 2014.
Evangelicals are deeply divided about the causes and solutions to racism. A new poll this week shows 73 percent of white evangelicals — the vast majority of evangelicals are white — say they would support Donald Trump, a candidate who 66 percent of Americans believe is biased against minority groups.
Anjelica and Joseph Tynes, an African-American couple who attended the event on Saturday, said they arrived hoping to hear a message of racial reconciliation aimed at evangelicals. Anjelica said she wondered beforehand if a one-time event could really make a difference, but when she saw the crowd on the Mall, she changed her mind. In fact, she thought the day of prayer would do more for racial healing than the presidential election could.
“If Trump’s in office, we’re responsible to pray for Trump,” she said. “If Hillary’s in office, we’re responsible to pray for Hillary.”
The Tyneses, like many others on the Mall, said they would not discuss whom they’re voting for, preferring instead to devote the day to prayer. There wasn’t a political sign or shirt in sight.
Adam Gordon, 32, and Josh Brooks, 25, were among the few to engage in political discussion during the event. Brooks said he’s thinking he’ll vote for Trump if the polls in November show him with a chance of winning New York, where the two friends live. Gordon burst out, “Why?!”
“Better than Hillary,” Brooks said.
Gordon shook his head. “Please don’t tell me you’re using Christianity to vote for Donald Trump,” he said, adding hat he would vote for a third-party candidate since he thinks neither Trump nor Clinton is sufficiently opposed to abortion.
Yonatan Estifanos, an engineer from Prince George’s County, said he hasn’t picked a presidential candidate yet. “God can use anybody,” he said.
In a country of racially and culturally homogeneous churches, the event’s attendees and its lineup were unusually diverse. And while many parts of evangelical America do not accept women as preachers, this event gave women equal billing with huge figures such as mega-preachers Francis Chan and Mark Batterson of Capitol Hill.
Popular writer Ann Voskamp and spoken word poet Amena Brown joined for an intense poem-prayer weaving images of Native Americans, slave ships and cotton pickers.
Grammy-winning African-American musician Lecrae rapped about the black experience in America: “Must be a thief; she locked the doors when I was walking by…. It’s hard to dream when your water ain’t clean…. Made in America. Mama told me that I belong here. Had to earn our stripes, learn our rights, fight for a home here. But I wouldn’t know anything about that; all I know is drugs and rap…. You better come save me, America.”
“Together” is the brainchild of Hall, a 34-year-old evangelist and event planner. Almost all of the people appearing at the event Saturday were evangelical, but Hall shared a greeting from Pope Francis.
Francis did a promotional video for the event, encouraging viewers to “Give [Jesus] a try! You don’t have anything to lose!” but some evangelical leaders discouraged too much involvement of the Catholic leader.
“We’re not saying it’s time to compromise scripture,” Hall told the crowd. “But there is something about reaching across the aisle…. We didn’t come for a show, we didn’t come for a concert…. We need to hear from heaven!”
Among those appearing were gospel musician Kirk Franklin and Dallas pastor Tony Evans, who are African American, and the mega-preachers Francis Chan, whose parents were from China, and Ravi Zacharias, who is of Indian descent.
Among the women appearing were Australian evangelist Christine Caine, women’s leadership minister Jennie Allen, campus pastor Laurel Bunker and spoken word poet Brown. Bunker and Brown are African American.
Paul Yi, 17, pointed out a lack of Asian-Americans in the lineup, despite the sometimes large patches of Asian-Americans in the audience. He attended the event with his Korean American church in Maryland.
But Yi said “It’s no problem. We’re all here to worship God. Don’t look at the worshippers.”
Rene Aviles, 35, came with his wife and two children in hopes that they would learn about unity in an embattled country. He said he would have liked to see more Latino speakers in the lineup, considering they are the largest minority group in evangelicalism at 11 percent.
“Deep down as a born El Salvadorean, yeah, that would have been nice to see,” Aviles said.
Such large faith gatherings are unusual today. “Together” is prompting conversations about what, if anything, today’s evangelicals agree should be revived. This group of Americans that makes up 25 percent of the U.S. population is divided about everything from gay rights and the existence of hell to whether the criminal justice system treats blacks and whites equally.
In an interview earlier this week, Hall said his goal was just to hold a huge, love-Jesus rally — something that has been mostly absent from American public life since the days of Billy Graham’s famed crusades.
“Everything now is protests: ‘I’m against this,’ or ‘I hate that.’ We really believe there is a longing to come together. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can come together around the hope of Jesus,” he said. “There are moments when God’s people come together, and God does something that can heal, change, define generations.”
The big, milestone events in modern evangelical history include Campus Crusade for Christ’s Explo ’72 in Dallas, the men’s Promise Keepers gathering in 1997 and of course evangelical icon Graham’s public revivals, which ran for decades starting in the 1940’s and defined the public face of American Christianity in the 20th century.
But today many Americans — including evangelicals — are ambivalent about religious witnessing in public. They don’t want to make other people uncomfortable. Yet the concept of a huge revival looms large in the minds of evangelicals, even if they aren’t entirely comfortable with it.
Some evangelicals say the idea isn’t biblical, that one can pray for revival but can’t plan it, that only God can decide when. Some hold up two massive phases of revivals in the 1700’s and 1800’s called “Great Awakenings.”
Many evangelicals don’t have a particular mission in attending; they just wanted to come to a huge public event in a prominent spot where they can celebrate their faith. Conservative Christians feel increasingly sidelined in a culture that in many ways is rapidly secularizing and liberalizing.
“This is a rally. And evangelicals will go to a rally because they feel the need to be rallied,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton.