Sunday, August 07, 2011

The scene inside and outside Reliant

Let's say some nice things first.

I believe the crowd was closer to 30,000 than any other number. I was on the floor of the stadium, to the left front of the stage and ahead of the soundboard but three rows back in the second seating section, by 8:25 yesterday morning.

The crowd was not only much larger than projected but also very diverse. I expected mostly white, middle-aged, and well-fed but there were many younger people of all creeds. In front of me was a row of high school -- or maybe college-age -- kids: one skinny tall red-headed Caucasian with a scruffy little beard, next to a shorter and even thinner black guy, next to a girl of Indio-Pakistani descent, next to her African-American girl friend, with two more of their Latina friends behind them.
They all not only held hands with God and prayed and sang at the top of their lungs but also bounced and pogo'd throughout the musical accompaniment, which occupied much of the time leading up to about 10 a.m.

In my row and those behind me were nearly all middle-aged and senior white people, but there was also a Hispanic family wearing Texans jerseys, having walked over after that morning's team practice across the street. Two guys, one woman -- all of them no more than late '20's, two little guys about 10 or so. The kids were munching from a big tub of popcorn, and the aroma was as sinful as it always is. I saw a senior Asian couple walking slowly arm in arm. Nearly no wheelchairs or walkers and no scooters (mobility-challenged people might have had a special section that I didn't see, higher up). But very few coming in, maybe because Reliant is so damned difficult for them to access -- long, sloping ramps or escalators being the primary entry.

The Responders were just as demographically mixed as any game at the ballpark I've been to, any street festival or outdoor concert in Houston. There were plenty of southern Baptist conventioneers by appearance, to be sure. Many obvious, ah, rural folk. But many Latinos and many African Americans also, of all ages.

OK then; to the play-by-play.

My intention was to get with the protestors outside early and then go into the stadium later in the morning, but the group I was looking for was nowhere in sight around 8 a.m., so I parked at the Holiday Inn due north of Reliant and ambled south across the vast asphalt expanse toward the giant dome. There's a VIP parking area to the immediate north of the arena, and as I walked past it headed for the south side gates I saw a bomb-sniffing dog and his handler sniffing out the cars there. I'm certain that detail isn't part of the normal stadium security even on an NFL Sunday, and I wondered who was paying for it. That was my first Tweet of the day.

As I came around to the south end there were ten or fifteen queues for bag checks and light patdowns, same as on game days. I lined up and took off my backpack for inspection, observing the stout little man in a grey polyester suit ahead of me as he was instructed to throw away his snacks -- a package of cinnamon rolls on a tin tray -- and his bottle of water. At his feet, under the table, were about 20 more abandoned water bottles.

I unzipped the compartments of my backpack, which contained sunblock, two frozen plastic bottles of water, some beef jerky, peanut butter crackers, a Luna bar, my diabetes and Meneire's meds, a notebook and some pens. I lifted it to the table and said, as the guard peeked in: "I have my Bible, my diabetes medication, a notebook, some pens ..."

He said, "you're good; go ahead". And so on I went.

As I made my way down to the floor there was a Christian rock band playing. A heavily U2-influenced one. Everything they played sounded like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" to me. But let's be kind and say that Christian rock music and its associated production values have come a long, long way just in the past few years. (One favorite artist from my youth -- Mark Farner of Grand Funk -- saw the light and crossed over years ago, but I was never, ever into the Strypers and the Jars of Clay and the like. And those are old farts compared to Switchfoot and Five Iron Frenzy. Anyway ...)

Up in front of the stage they had cleared out some seating and created ... you guessed it, a Christian mosh pit. And some of the people coming out of there were white, middle-aged, and profusely sweaty. There was a little bit more than the predictable swaying and arm-waving going on. A little more, not a lot.

A prayer, a song, then a slow-dance version of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling down the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.

Glory glory hallelujah!
Glory glory hallelujah!
Glory glory hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

Everybody sing along!

Another band -- a folk instrumentalist dead-ringer for Glen Maxey (if Glen still had shoulder-length hair that was salt-and-pepper) and a soloist singing some old revival hymn, a prayer, another song, a truly great gospel choir of at least 60 African Americans, then an introduction of the co-sponsors by Richard Land: the Dobsons, Tony Perkins, the others ... 

Around ten o'clock Luis Cataldo, the director of The Response, came out and opened the show. He took complete control of the assembly, by this time at least ten and maybe fifteen thousand, with his opening remarks. Paraphrasing from my hastily scribbled notes ...

"This day is for one person. ONE man." (No, he was not referring to the governor of Texas.) "Today will be a day of fasting and prayer, a gathering unto God as the body of Christ to worship, repent, and pray for America. May Jesus' name be lifted above every other name today in Reliant Stadium."

So much for the fasting. For some. More on that in a moment. Cataldo likewise and deservedly praised the diversity of the assembly and went on:

"We will have a Spanish translator shortly, but she is stuck in traffic. Now when she arrives, you'll hear our speakers in English and her Spanish translation immediately following. It will sound a little confusing at first, but after awhile it won't bother you and then you won't even notice it. As you look around, you may see people doing something and you'll ask yourself: 'what are they doing? Why are they doing that? Should I be doing that?' Don't worry about that. Just worship and pray in your own way and don't be concerned with what others are doing."

"Some people are fasting and some are not, for whatever reason. Some people will be praying and singing out loud and some won't. Some will be raising their hands to God and some won't. When we break into small groups later to share our prayers with each other, if you don't have a prayer or can't think of one then say 'Amen', or 'ditto', or 'what he said'. We want you -- the Lord wants you -- to be a participant today, not a spectator. You are standing before God on behalf of America; He wants to hear your voice. But don't worry about what others are doing or how they are doing it. Give grace to God in your own way and allow everyone else the freedom to do the same."

I cannot emphasize this point enough: Cataldo took total control of the crowd. He confronted their biases and their anxiety, and asked -- no, instructed -- them to lay off that burden. And I think his directions mostly took hold, as well.

"We're not selling any merchandise here today. There's no offering being collected. There are no signs or banners, there's no one denomination authorizing or being featured by our guest speakers or musical groups.

"This day is to worship God in spirit and truth, to come together as a diverse body with sincerity, wholeheartedness, and repentance. We believe that America is in a state of crisis. Not just politically, financially or morally, but because we are a nation that has not honored God in our successes nor humbly called on Him in our struggles. According to the Bible, the answer to a nation in such crisis is to gather in humility and ask God to intervene.

"Today is a historic day of people from across the nation to pray and fast for America."

Or something like that. Thoughts of the highway to hell's pavement came to mind often.

The only time things got offensively political was when a stream of teenagers came forward and screamed out prayers for "God's intervention in stopping abortion in America". I wondered if their interpretation of  'God's intervention' includes clinic bombings and doctor assassinations. No, I really do wonder about that. Because I fear that it does.

Rick Perry was scheduled for 11:20 a.m. I left the arena floor around 10:45, my toxicity meter redlining, my phone battery waning and my back teeth floating. As I made my way out I stopped and talked to my fellow Demoncrat Erik Vidor, who was setting up his video camera in front of the soundboard. Knowing there would be plenty of opportunities later to see the Prophet's remarks, I headed up to the concourse, took a piss and then walked outside to find MY people. My Chosen Ones.

Where there was no one in place responding to The Response at 8 a.m. there were now around a couple of hundred, with signs and hats and costumes and songs and chants. There was a large group -- 60 to 75 -- at the front door, in the shade of the towering Reliant structure on the west side facing Kirby Drive at Murworth, and several more gatherings along Kirby all the way down toward 610, collecting under the shade of the small oaks there in numbers of a dozen or so each.

I joined the shady siders and stayed until about 12:30, retiring to break my own fast with a Satan Sandwich, a side socialism salad, and an independent progressive ale at the Sports Page, the bar inside the Holiday Inn, before returning home and streaming The Response's video while joining the Twitter feed. (#theresponse)

More coverage:

More photos from the Houston Chronicle

More photos of protestors from thanks_imjustlurking's Photobucket album

God's Response to Rick Perry

Kate Shellnutt's Believe It or Not live-blog of The Response

Rick Perry ain't whistlin' Dixie ... or is he? (YouTube)

Tens of thousands of Houstonians turn out for back-to-school help

A good seven miles from Gov. Rick Perry's much-anticipated prayer rally, an even larger crowd of Houstonians gathered in preparation for another sacred event: the first day of school.

Some families camped out for hours to gain admittance into Houston's first-ever, citywide back-to-school event at George R. Brown Convention Center, where free backpacks, school supplies, uniforms, haircut vouchers, immunizations and fresh produce were provided.

Others were turned away.

(The article originally contained crowd estimates of 100,000 but that has now been edited out.)

1 comment:

Ahab said...

I watched the Response via livestream online, and I found much of its content troubling. Not only was the anti-abortion and "Christian nation" content surreal, but there was a recurring theme that humans do not have answers to today's crises and must therefore turn to God. How is feigning helplessness and abnegating responsibility going to solve any problems? An unhealthy message, to say the least.