Spirituality, it seems, is rallying potent energy in the public square. From the Million Man March in October 1995 to the Promise Keepers' revival on the Washington Mall and-probably the largest of all, with official estimates of up to a million participants-the Million Woman March in Philadelphia this past fall, America has witnessed a series of massive national gatherings whose central, shared message is one of healing and renewal. Focusing on both the spiritual and societal dimensions of this message, all three meetings highlighted the themes of repentance, individual responsibility for collective social crises, and restoring broken relationships.
But the Million Woman March was actually something quite different from the two men's events, if only because African American women perceive that they have rather less to atone for than do men of any race. Hence, though "repentance" was listed as the first of three main themes of the event (followed by "resurrection" and "restoration"), the speeches and subsequent commentary focused more on empowerment than repentance, more on self-esteem and black female unity than on absolution or atonement. Whereas the men in both prior gatherings were repeatedly admonished for their past failings and weakness, the women were roundly celebrated for their courage and strength and urged to honor both themselves and their sisters with renewed, vigorous passion.
In this sense, the Million Woman March more closely resembled explicitly Christian women's gatherings that have been taking place over several decades than it did the more recent spate of men's assemblies. Few of these grass-roots evangelical groups for women-such as Praise Keepers, Promise Reapers, Chosen Women, Heritage Keepers, Suitable Helpers, Women of Faith, and Women's Aglow Fellowship-have received much more than scattered articles in local newspapers. Yet Chosen Women attracted 30,000 participants to its Rose Bowl celebratory prayer meeting last May, and Women of Faith is expected to draw 300,000 women to its twenty-nine scheduled "Joyful Journey" conventions next year. Meanwhile, Debbie Henley, co-founder of Praise Keepers, has openly compared her group to the Promise Keepers, confidently noting that "Women's ministries are always bigger than the men's. This will be bigger than the men's." Combined, several hundred thousand participants from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds attend evangelical women's conferences, seminars, and local meetings such as these, with thousands more joining all-female Christian diet groups, Bible studies, and local prayer circles in their own churches.
MY first encounter with this world of evangelical women came in 1993, when I began studying Women's Aglow Fellowship, a professedly nonpolitical devotional group that emerged in the 1960s and is still going strong throughout America and abroad. Like its younger Christian counterparts now sweeping the country, Aglow is sustained by national and international conference events; however, the heart of the group's activity occurs in monthly local meetings, where women get together for worship, biblical exhortation, and, most importantly, prayer. The first Aglow retreat I attended left me astonished. It was here that I heard for the first of many times an evangelical Christian woman speak publicly and in graphic terms about her own sexual abuse, here that I first witnessed hundreds of women mourn aloud their own lost childhood and beseech prayer from others who claimed similarly wrenching experiences. My pretenses to scholarly detachment were shaken by my immediate observations of such pain-I listened with wonder as two elderly women sitting near me at the back of the room told one another about their own experiences of sexual abuse, then held each other like mothers cradling their children.
I thought, then and many times afterward, of the cultural stereotypes commonly depicting conservative Christian women as meek followers of the men who run their churches, as puppets duped by the leaders of the religious right, or, more threateningly, as militant antifeminists in the tradition of Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye; in this context, such images seemed ludicrous. …