TOP STORY: RELIGION IN AMERICA: Christian rally puts `evils’ on trial

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS)-Thousands of evangelical Christians, gathering at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday (April 30) for a rally dubbed”Washington for Jesus,”declared the United States”guilty”of a variety of”sins,”ranging from abortion to AIDS to racism.”We face the 21st century a great nation with a great heritage, but living today in the shadow of the shame of the seven giants,”said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, kicking off a mock trial that went on for much of the day.”We come today … to declare this nation guilty of violating God’s law and to call this nation to repentance to forsake her sins and to acknowledge Christ Jesus as Lord.” Falwell, speaking at 7:15 a.m. under rainy skies, declared that the founding fathers intended America to be a Christian nation and that”America must come back to the faith of her fathers.”He said schools have become”religion-free zones,”one example of what he called persecution of the church, one of seven”evil giants”that were spoken, prayed and sung about during the rally.

The other issues were homosexuality, abortion, racism, addictions, occultism, and HIV/AIDS.

The crowd, a mix of all ages, followed a rally Monday (April 29) attended mostly by young people.”Washington for Jesus”spokesman David J. Allen estimated”several hundred thousand”would attend the entire event, but the crowds appeared significantly smaller, in the tens of thousands. Authorities had not released a crowd estimate by mid-afternoon Tuesday.

The participants gathered on the Capitol and the easternmost part of the Mall, the grassy area stretching to the Lincoln Memorial, withstood rain and wind as they shouted”guilty”during the mock trial. Leaders, however, said church members need to repent for not being bold enough in confronting what they consider the nation’s ills.

After the guilty proclamations, a man on stage blew into a shofar, a ram’s horn traditionally used in Jewish New Year services to remind listeners of God’s presence.

Outside observers of the event were particularly skeptical about Falwell’s presence.”I want the well-meaning youth of this rally, who came to Washington to support Jesus and not to subscribe to some televangelist’s narrow political agenda, to realize that Falwell’sâÂ?¦ views do not speak for people of faith in the mainstream Christian community,”said Albert Pennybacker, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based organization that includes representatives of Catholic, mainline Protestant and Jewish groups whose aim is to counter the religious right.

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Between the mock cases were performances by choirs and Christian artists, such as Point of Grace, which just won a Dove Award for Group of the Year. Those in the crowd, covered with brightly colored ponchos or green garbage bags, swayed, danced and sang along with the music. Others walked around the Capitol, arms raised, praying for the nation.

While the stage personalities focused on the seven issues, some in the crowd were also interested in other matters relating to the church.”My major concern would be revival in the church,”said Laura Saba, 43, a member of Christ Church of Washington, D.C., saying she is less concerned about”works of the devil.” When homosexuality was the focus of the crowd’s attention, the speakers said they were not homophobic but rather intent on helping people be”set free”from what they considered to be a sin.

Nellie Ussery, 59, of Atlanta, said she thought the prayers about homosexuality were an important part of the day’s agenda. Ussery said she believes the Bible prohibits homosexual behavior, but she said she tries to share the love of Jesus with gay people.”The Lord loves them and I love them,”said Ussery, a nondenominational charismatic church member who said she has friends and a relative who are gay.”We can’t be wishy-washy Christians. We have to stand up for what we believe.” Norma McCorvey, the woman who was”Jane Roe”in the historic 1973 Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion, joined other women on the stage to declare their opposition to abortion and support of the Christian faith. Last August, McCorvey, who had been employed at a Dallas abortion clinic, began working for Operation Rescue, an outspoken anti-abortion group.

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Speakers called on churches to embrace people of all races, and some in the audience said they already had reached out.

Carmel Wilkin, 62, an Antiguan woman, and David Henn, 48, a white man, were attending the rally together with members of their Assemblies of God church in Glen Burnie, Md.”It is great to see the body of Christ coming together and repenting for the sins of America,”said Henn, who invited Wilkin to his church.”We as a body of Christ need to stick together. It doesn’t matter what race or colorâÂ?¦. It’s issues like that that divide people.” The rally was scheduled to close with a service led by evangelist Benny Hinn.

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Four members of Whitwell Congregational Methodist Church in Whitwell, Tenn., carried handkerchiefs and other clothing of ill family members that they hoped Hinn would bless before they carried the objects home.”They couldn’t come and so we brought these objects to be prayedâÂ?¦ over,”explained Sandra Campbell, wife of the pastor of the Tennessee church.”God’s going to touch them through it.” Organizers said they hope the sense of unity declared at the rally, the third such event since 1980, will go home with the people who attended.”The people of God have united again,”said Anna Gimenez, national coordinator of the event and sister of the founder of”Washington for Jesus.””They’re taking it back to their cities, their towns, their counties, that we are one in Jesus. In unity, there is power and victory.” The Rev. John Gimenez, founder of the event, said he hopes rally participants will gather next in front of their state capitols.”We’ve been to the Capitol steps here,”he said.”Now, we’ve got to go to the capitol steps everywhere.”TJB END BANKS

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