HOUSTON—"Pray for our economy!" says Doug Stringer of Turning Point Ministries. "Pray for our country! Pray for our businesses, for jobs!"
His sermon reverberates from the stage into the seats and bleachers of Reliant Stadium. Thousands of Christians—many of the 30,000 who've made it inside—get up and take his advice. They break into small huddles and start praying about the economy. Walking past them, I hear incredibly specific words like "investments" and "9.2 percent unemployment" and "downgrade." I see people tearing up, dabbing their eyes, praying even more. They have to finish quickly, before the next round of songs and prayers. They've already sat through three hours of them; there are four hours left to go.
"The Response" is overwhelming, and that's the point. Just two months ago, Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, became the initiator of an event where Christians would "call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles." Perry was coming off a Day of Prayer to call for rain amid a crippling statewide drought. (It has not been completely successful.) Why not turn the dial up to 11? The American Family Association would foot much of the bill; a governor with simmering presidential buzz would do the promotion.
It came together better than they could have hoped. The cars driving into the Reliant's many parking lots clogged Kirby Drive for miles and backed up some of I-610. They had left their homes after hearing that Standard & Poor's had downgraded the United States' credit rating from AAA to AA+. More bad news, as if they needed it.
"I'm going to take a hit," says Julius Maresh, a 68-year-old engineer from Houston who had expected to retire by now. Instead, he spent the last three weeks watching his 401(k) lose $50,000. He illustrates his expectations for next week by pointing his thumb down and making the noise a crashing plane makes: "Kerrrrrsshhhh."
They're scared when they arrive. Inside the stadium, cooled 30 degrees below the triple-digit temperatures of Houston in August, they are offered solace and bliss. This is a Christian event, but it's nondenominational, and it has a governor's stamp of approval. Attendee after attendee assures me this is historic. They share stories of the smaller churches that have prayed to make this happen. Starr Finn, a Born-Again missionary who sports a pin shaped like two babies' feet—"it's against abortion," she says—describes The Response as an answer to "The Call," a long-running series of nondenominational mega-rallies.
This is a lot like The Call. The promotional material for the next Call rally, in Detroit in November, explains that the city "has become a microcosm of our national crisis—economic collapse, racial tension, the rising tide of the Islamic movement, and the shedding of innocent blood of our children in the streets and of our unborn." But The Response is a little sunnier, says Finn. It's a complement to the 24-hour, 7-days-a-week prayers going on at some of the churches that organized this event.
"They have been praying and fasting for our nation for a decade," she tells me, standing right in front of the stage where Radiant Band is singing about how there's "no God like Jehovah."
"This is the first time a governor, one of the highest-ranking officials in the government, made a stand and said: We need this," says Finn. "It says in 1 Peter that we should submit to governors. As true believers, as Christians, when the governor wants us to be here, we're really required to be here."
I want to double-check that. I do so with the Bible of a man who kept it in a sleeve bearing the legend: "This Book Is Illegal in 57 Countries." The verse in question says, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme." So it thrilled Finn, and it thrilled lots of other people here, that Perry was reintroducing himself as a leader they wouldn't mind submitting to.
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