Slumming in the Promised Land

November 1, 1996

Published in Xtra! West on November 28, 1996

About an hour into the Promise Keepers rally, I’m sitting across the aisle from a cherubic, 16-year-old blond from Abbotsford when prayer leader Brian Warren invites all the teenaged boys to rise from their seats.

Warren—whose righteous, Afro-American baritone recalls the Bible-and-gun-toting Samuel Jackson character from Pulp Fiction—wants every boy to remember this moment for the rest of his life. So he urges the men surrounding them to lay their hands on each boy and pray that they see the glory of Jesus Christ.

How can I resist? Pressing my hand firmly on the Abbotsford boy’s shoulder with five other adult male hands, I close my eyes:

“Lord, please don’t let this child grow up with fear in his heart. If he turns out hetero, may he learn to embrace diversity. If he turns out queer, lead him not into Born Again suicide, but give him the courage to accept his nature and seek the community in which it is most likely to blossom…”

I had come to the November 16 rally under cover—a clandestine fag— hoping to learn something I hadn’t already read about the Promise Keepers, an American fundamentalist Christian men’s movement holding its first event in Vancouver.
I was curious to know more about a Religious Right organization which, in a six-year life span, had compiled a budget of $120 million, a staff of 500 and at least 38 regional offices in the US—plus its own media, publishing and merchandising wing. So I ditched my pride pin for a day, shelled out the $25 admission fee and stepped into the Pacific Coliseum with 11,553 other men to praise the Lord.

My first dilemma as a “single” man becomes acute the moment I pass through the turnstile: with whom shall I spend the next five hours? I scan the crowd, looking for a suitable candidate.

Contrary to some reports, the men aren’t all white middle-class suburbanites in polyester. There are at least 2,000 Asians in attendance, as well as Afro-Americans, East Indians, and even one or two Aboriginals. These men, and the Caucasian majority, look no more “Christian” than the average beer-swilling hockey fan.

Moments before the event begins, I grab a seat across from the Abbotsford blond. Sitting to my left is an overweight, working-class truck driver from Washington state who—like at least one third of this crowd—is busy flipping through the Good Book to catch all the references.

The lights come up and a loud mix of pop rhythms shakes the Coliseum, as a band of men dressed like the Beach Boys leads the crowd through an introductory hymn. Then the host welcomes everyone, congratulating us for sounding more American in our enthusiasm than he expected.

The first speaker, Rick Kingham, attacks the media for its critical coverage. “Promise Keepers is not about controlling our wives,” he says, to much applause. “It’s about serving our wives.” Kingham says that change is needed in Canada, but that it won’t come from political action. “It doesn’t matter who’s in power,” he says. “Spiritual answers are required.”

He’s lying, of course. Real change requires nothing short of politics. But it’s too soon to get into heavy messages. First we have to “Break Down the Walls” that separate us, and what better a way to loosen men up for the coming Holy War than to sing? In the first hour, we go through six or seven songs—all of them full of upbeat, infectious rhythms, lyrics about strength, power, honour, and integrity, and even a “God is Good” refrain like Muslims use.

My own personal favorite is that old Billy Graham classic, “How Great Thou Art.” For this one, we’re encouraged to hold hands (“I know it might make you feel uncomfortable”), turn to our brothers and say: “Don’t hold back.” I have no trouble exchanging this greeting with the Washington trucker, but when I turn to my right and the Abbotsford blond gives me his soft hand, smiles bashfully and says, “Don’t hold back!”, my heart skips a beat.

As we stand there clasping hands and belting out the old hymn, I allow myself a moment of frisson at the thought of so many men in one room, attempting intimacy through music. But as we get closer to the chorus it’s clear that we’re trying to outdo one another, like some frat party of drunken football players. This is no intimacy. This is Triumph of the Will. And I can’t help wondering what the Abbotsford boy is learning from all this.

Leaving my seat for some food, I find a crowd more than a hundred men deep at the concession stand. So I wade into the lineup and chat with a Fraser Valley man who echoes earlier complaints about the media. Later, I notice a blond college jock wearing a crucifix earring and a leather varsity jacket. Standing at the condiments area with his buddy, he bows his head and mutters a quiet prayer of thanks for his nachos and artificial cheese dip.

I move on to the merchandise area, hoping to sample the Promise Keepers product line, but it’s impossible. The exit is heavily guarded and the entrance is crammed with men anxious to get their hands on a copy of The Seven Promises book.

I never do hear the expected homophobic tirade. Because of the bad press, some of the more outspoken bigots among the leadership have learned to couch their rhetoric in coded words like “false intimacy” and “churches who allow sin into their ranks.”

With the final speaker, HB London of the ultra-right Focus on the Family, the political agenda is revealed at last. London warns us that we cannot “take this land of Canada in the name of Jesus Christ” unless we are united against all opposition—including media, liberal churches, and all Non-Believers.

“They say we’re like grasshoppers,” London concludes. “But three or four million grasshoppers can take down any giant. And no one can take down an army of Jesus Christ.”

Moments later, we close the rally with a patriotic rendition of “O Canada”—our arms raised to the sky, like another “army” of true believers from six decades ago, in a place called Deutschland.

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