30,000 turn out for Perry's day of prayer in Houston

Posted Saturday, Aug. 06, 2011  Print Reprints
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HOUSTON -- Thousands of worshippers converged on Houston's Reliant Stadium on Saturday in a larger-than-expected turnout for Gov. Rick Perry's day of prayer and fasting, transforming the cavernous sports venue into a mega-revival filled with soaring gospel music, Scripture readings and solemn prayers asking God's help to confront the nation's ills.

Perry, who is moving closer toward a presidential run that he could announce any day, drew cheers and applause as he arrived to proclaim his faith in a "loving God" and call for a divine hand to help "those who suffer." His eyes closed tight in prayer, Perry asked God to guide the nation's leaders, including President Barack Obama, as they battle a litany of problems from war to economic turmoil.

"Father, our heart breaks for America," he said. "We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government."

Returning to the stage just before the event concluded, Perry declared that "this is a day that people are going to discuss for years to come" and predicted that the event could begin a "revival of our nation."

Perry also asked participants to pray for the families of U.S. special-forces troops who were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan on Saturday.

Known as the Response, the seven-hour gathering attracted national news media attention because of Perry's emergence as a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination. The New York Times called it one of the biggest tests in his political career.

Critics denounced the Response as an exclusionary event dominated by Christian conservatives who could provide Perry a major boost if he jumps into the race.

Crowd tops estimates

Eric Bearse, spokesman for the event, estimated attendance at nearly 30,000, well above the prediction of 8,000 based on advance registration.

Houston officials reported extensive traffic tie-ups as participants began arriving well ahead of the 10 a.m. start, ultimately filling most of the 6,700 folding chairs on the floor and many seats in the decks.

Reliant Stadium, capacity 71,000, is the home of the Houston Texans, who were in training camp across the street.

Critics, some of whom had tried to block the event in court, lamented what they saw as an improper commingling of religion and government. A single-engine plane, circling overhead, greeted early arrivals with a banner that read "Gov: Keep state/church separate."

More than 50 protesters, including a group from Fort Worth, gathered at a nearby intersection. They denounced the American Family Association and other sponsors for what they said are exclusionary religious views and extremist positions toward non-Christians and gays.

Some demonstrators also assailed Perry's participation in the religious event as a blatant political display.

"Pastor Perry must resign," one sign read. "Keep church and state separate," another said.

Alternative viewpoints

At least 15 members of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ in Fort Worth, made the trip to join the protest.

"Our view is that the Gospel is one of inclusion, not exclusion," Pastor Katherine Godby said. "We came because we want people to know that there is an alternative to what the American Family Association's view of the Gospel is."

Democrats in Austin and Dallas also staged anti-Perry protests.

But inside the stadium, spiritual unity reigned as the ethnically diverse crowd heard a parade of inspirational messages interspersed with religious music that ranged from solemn chorales to old-fashioned gospel to up-tempo Christian rock. Some of the speakers struck themes championed by social conservatives by extolling the "sanctity of marriage" and calling for prayer in schools.

"This is going to be a good day," said Luis Cataldo of the International House of Prayer of Kansas City. "We're here all day to worship Jesus."

Although Perry invited all the nation's governors to participate, only one, Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, was there. Florida Gov. Rick Scott addressed the gathering by video.

Brownback read Scripture and asked God to lend strength to "people of peace in a turbulent world." Scott, a Republican who took office in January, asked that God provide "wisdom for the leaders of our nation."

Perry initiated the event May 18, calling for "a solemn day of prayer and fasting in behalf of our troubled nation." Fort Worth televangelist James Robison has been credited with helping inspire it.

'He came to pray, and that's what he did'

Sounding more like a preacher than a politician, Perry clearly connected with the audience, which responded with cheers and applause throughout his 10-minute address. Many quietly read from their own Bibles as Perry read Scriptures. Others waved outstretched arms skyward as the governor prayed.

"I loved it," said Honee Nowlin of Fort Worth, who attended the event with her husband, Bill Nowlin. "He came to pray and that's what he did, and that's why we're here."

Perry opened his early appearance at the rally by declaring, "I love this country deeply" and professing his faith in "the living Christ." But he added that "our hearts are breaking for those who suffer," including those who have lost jobs and "people who have lost hope."

He described God as a "loving God" who does not have a "political agenda." Drawing laughter, Perry also said God is "wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party."

"I'm so humbled to be in the midst of men and women who have answered the call to prayer and fast for our nation," Perry said. "Like all of you, I love this country deeply. ... Indeed, the only thing that you love more is the living Christ."

Perry, who traces his roots to his boyhood on a West Texas tenant farm, has rarely been hesitant about discussing his religious beliefs.

"This God who knows our imperfections, he didn't leave us to live a life in our sins, but paid the price for them," Perry said. "This loving, this loving and perfect God is also a personal God. He desires not a show of religion, but a deep connection with our innermost being."

Nationwide simulcast

Many of the participants came from out of state. The event was also simulcast in more than 1,000 places in 50 states, giving Perry a powerful nationwide reach to Christian voters across the country.

Rita Baird, 55, and her daughter Angie, 29, flew in from their hometown of Manly, Iowa, and were among the first to arrive.

"I came down to pray for our country," said Rita Baird, saying she was not focused on presidential politics and did not know whether she would support Perry if he enters the race.

"We came mostly to worship Jesus," her daughter said.

Other participants also stressed the apolitical nature of the event.

"I just want to seek God," said Sarah Munyu, a graduate student at Texas Southern University. "I don't have a political agenda." She wore a black T-shirt that declared: "Love God. Love People."

This report includes material from the Tribune Washington Bureau.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294