A Big Hand for the Little Ladies

Lead Promise Keeper Bill McCartney is standing at the podium at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, urging 8,900 men to "make a commitment" for January 1, 2000. Every man in the arena is standing, promising to bring his family and invite ten other families to Promise Keepers rallies across the country on the first day of the new millennium.

"There's only One Way," McCartney is yelling, his right hand raised toward the sky, pointing the number one. Every man in the arena has his finger in the air.

Connie Butcher also has her finger in the air, though the men in the arena have no way of knowing that she's sharing their male-bonding-in-Jesus ritual.

Promise Keepers rallies have gained notoriety as male-only events, but there are plenty of women in the World Arena on September 25 and 26--and they're not just the women of the Suicide Prevention Hotline team, one of the nonprofits signed up to work arena concessions for a six-month stint that happens to include the PK rally. There are also paid women staffers from religious organizations working booths in the concourse, as well as the women on Promise Keepers' 280-member staff.

Butcher is one of 530 volunteers, 150 of whom are women. They helped set up and prayed for the spirit of God to enter the arena before the gathering, and now they're selling books, CDs, T-shirts and ballcaps, getting the men registered, feeding them lunch, escorting speakers to the podium. A couple of them simply walk around praying.

"I really believe in what they're trying to do--make men better men, better fathers and husbands," Butcher says, explaining why she decided to become involved. She's divorced, and says of her ex-husband, "If this would have been available, things might have turned out different." Today she's working as a media liaison in the press booth, which affords her an excellent view of--and an opportunity to participate in--the proceedings on the arena floor.

Most of the other women don't have such a good view.
Carol Huston is passing out programs at a table in the concourse. Her reason for volunteering is simple: "I like to hear the men sing," she says, then laughs as if confessing a naughty secret. Huston's referring to the Maranatha Promise Choir, which performs between speakers and during intermissions. When the choir sings, backed by a rock band, lyrics flash on video screens so all of the men can sing along--and most do so without inhi-bition. Many men already know the words and keep on singing as they spill out of the arena to buy hotdogs or go to the john. Huston has seen the choir's black T-shirts with white letters proclaiming "Real Men Sing Real Loud"; she can't actually see the choir's performance, though the sound rocks the building. (If she could see, she'd probably also enjoy the choir director's conducting--which is mostly just white-guy dancing as he faces the choir, his back to the crowd.)

Huston says she heard about the Promise Keepers' need for volunteers through a "women's group." Same with the three women from the Colorado Springs chapter of Women of Purpose who "man" a booth hawking copies of McCartney's book Sold Out. A few volunteers are former Promise Keepers employees who lost their jobs in the organization's financial restructuring that began earlier this year. Others have come on their own.

"I'm so excited about what happens here," says Cynthia Elizondo, who is taking a break from her duties at the registration booth to peek through a curtain at the action in the arena. "I started listening to it on the radio in '94-'95, and I was so moved at what they're preaching here, and the power in this place with all these men coming to unity, that I had the desire to be here," she says. This is Elizondo's second rally, and she wants to add one thing: "I just wish my dad and brother would participate in something like this. That's probably why I have a passion for it. There's a history of divorce among the men in our family. They don't have any idea how to take leadership or what their role is in their families." Elizondo is also divorced, a single mother with one son.

Shannon Noel is peeking through another curtain at another alcove. Proudly noting that she's only eighteen, Noel says she has been working the "bookstore" (a tent in the parking lot), but wanted to come see the "altar call." This is the point when all of the men who haven't already done so are invited to the front of the arena to receive Jesus Christ. Music plays while hundreds of men stream down the aisles to the altar. Noel patiently answers questions but keeps turning away to look back through the curtain. "It's amazing how God can bring so many people to their knees," she says. Dressed in a faded black T-shirt and baggy, army-green cargo pants, Noel looks like a hardened teenager; still, she's moved nearly to tears.

As the music ends, the arena booms with applause. For the guys at the altar who were never sports heroes, this must feel like a dream come true.

PK organizers make it clear that they couldn't hold these events without volunteers, particularly the women.

"Our joke was always that without the women behind the men, the conferences wouldn't come off," says Peggy Ruppe. Her husband, Steve, is listed as Promise Keepers' official spokesman, but Peggy is working the media room feverishly. "We used to feed--our record is 60,000 box lunches served in 23 minutes," she says. "You couldn't do that without women!"

But, she stresses, "we are not doormats." Although her husband was "already a good person," Ruppe says she urged him to go to his first PK event in 1994 because "I really wanted him to hear what I had heard they were saying. I wanted him to have a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, so I sent him."

Many women at this event speak of "sending" their men to Promise Keepers. "That's the way it works with a lot of the wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends--they're the ones who urge the men to go," Ruppe says. "We're not the stereotype with the little frilly dresses."

At least a third of the women interviewed by Westword are single divorcees. One of them, Clarisse (who didn't want her last name used), is selling books. Since 1993 she's worked at two PK rallies in Boulder, two at Mile High Stadium and one in Oregon. Concerned about media bias, Clarisse speaks hesitantly but says, "I just think it benefits everybody. Not just Christians or people who are religious. Like today, the number-one issue in the headlines is morality, with the whole Clinton thing, and Promise Keepers is an event that calls men to be a man of integrity. As a woman who has gone through the trauma of divorce, who's seen her kids hurt, I see this as a great avenue to prevent divorce and encourage marriages."

"Oh, it's fantastic," says Laura Riegelman, who is working her first rally. "To find this many men in one room is an amazing experience for me. I'm a single woman, and part of the reason I believe I'm single is because of the lack of commitment of the men in my life. I was married for fifteen years and have been divorced for fifteen years." Riegelman says her ex-husband is "saved," but she doesn't hope for reconciliation.

Hundreds of men in the arena are also single. In fact, during his speech on strong marriages, author Dennis Rainey asks these men to stand. He then asks all of the married men nearby to reach over and touch the single guys during Rainey's special prayer for them.

Considering that all of these men are learning how to make commitments, does Riegelman think she might find a good man here?

"Possibly," she says. "There is a little hope, but what gives me more hope is knowing that there are good men out there who can love the Lord and support their families."

Clarisse says that the possibility of finding a man at PK has never entered her mind, despite her six rallies. "I'm here for a reason," she says. "Not to meet people."

And although the crush of men that emerges from the arena during intermissions is good-natured and well-mannered, many have less spiritual, more basic work left to do on themselves. This is evident in the few women's restrooms that haven't been declared off-limits to women with paper signs announcing that, for this weekend, they're "Men's." Women must pass several of these converted women's rooms before they find one they can use; even there, toilet seats have been left up and bowls are yellow with unflushed urine.

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