WASHINGTON, DC (FR) – They came from the far corners of the earth – 1200 delegates from over 114 nations. They were joined by thousands of Christians from around the U.S., a crowd which the National Park Service estimated at 200,000. These determined believers braved chilly winds and occasional rain to attend the second Washington for Jesus Rally held on the historic Mall in front of the U.S. Capitol.
During one of the key moments of the event, African Archbishop Benson Idahosa of Nigeria led the multitude in prayer for the world. The Christians turned north, south, east, and west with their arms outstretched … agreeing together for all nations to experience a true spiritual awakening.
“We are not here to pray just for Washington, D.C.,” Idahosa proclaimed. “We are asking God for Europe for Jesus … Africa for Jesus … Asia for Jesus!” Rally organizers said that international delegates at the rally came to learn how to coordinate one in their home countries. Many of them stayed in Washington for several days to attend the “Lord of the Nations” conference, sponsored by Youth With a Mission, in which leaders were challenged to take their regions of the world for Christ.
The first Washington for Jesus rally, held in 1980, drew somewhere between 200,000 to 700,000 participants. The themes emphasized in that historic prayer gathering were the Iran hostage crisis, a failing economy, and the erosion of the nation’s moral foundations. It was shortly followed by the election of Ronald Reagan, deemed one of the most conservative presidents elected in the last two decades.
At the 1988 gathering, which was held on April 29, President Reagan addressed the gathering by way of a videotaped message, which was a first for a U.S. president. The President also signed a bill during the week of the rally setting aside May 5th as the National Day of Prayer.
John Giminez, pastor of the 5,000-member Rock Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was the organizer of Washington for Jesus in 1980 and 1988. After eight years, Giminez said, Christians have made much progress. They have seen the need for not only affecting the political process through election of godly officials, but for personal holiness followed by civic action.
Although there was much prayer for Washington officials during the 12-hour prayer vigil, Giminez and other organizers said that the 1988 event was purposefully kept apolitical. “We’re not here to point the finger at the world,” Giminez told reporters. “But the Church needs facing up. We’re seeking improvement in ourselves. We didn’t show up to elect anybody …” There were occasional prayers for the upcoming presidential elections during the course of the prayer meeting, but most of the emphasis was placed upon humility and moral integrity in the Church.
The Church has seen several scandals within the last decade which Giminez says are signs of human frailty. “If it’s the PTL situation, or Jimmy Swaggart, we need to recognize the element of human frailty. We’ve always had problems, but the church just needs to get right.” The new PTL director, David Clark, agreed, saying, “Washington For Jesus is primarily a spiritual event. The fruit of repentance here will be translated into action, because there are social consequences of the gospel.”
The 1988 event was indeed marked by humility. Christian believers huddled together throughout the day in small groups to pray, and there were often visible signs of weeping and repentance. Others marched around the Capitol Mall area with signs, banners, and declarations of Christ’s lordship over the nation.
Giminez said the main goals of the event were to foster interdenominational unity, and to encourage repentance of personal and corporate sin. “We’ve seen a breakdown of denominational barriers,” said Dee Jepsen, a former White House staffer and outspoken Christian leader who addressed the crowd. “And we’ve seen groups that were not formerly involved, such as the Episcopalians and Lutherans, turn out to participate.”
Although dubbed as an apolitical event, several key Christian leaders had private hopes that it would launch the Christian movement towards action on social issues such as abortion and pornography. “Every Christian needs to be involved in the abortion issue,” said Melody Green, president of Americans Against Abortion.
“My desire is to see every Christian take a stand and to write letters, picket, do something,” Green added. Jepsen agreed, saying, “I personally want to see abortion outlawed. The women are the second victim. It’s a great travesty that it’s done in the name of ‘rights for women.’”
Jepsen also said she would like to see more activism against pornography. “It is so degrading to womanhood, we need to stand up and say, ‘Stop!’” Dr. James Dobson, radio host and author, said he was very concerned about the pornography issue: “It bothers me that Christians are not bothered about the porn industry.”
To demonstrate the social implications of the gospel, Giminez suggested that food and clothing be donated by rally participants. A semi-truck and two vans full of food were collected to distribute to the poor in the Washington, D.C. area. The food was then distributed by Networkers, an ecumenical organization headed up by Dr. John Staggers.
“Dr. Staggers’ long-range plan is to link black churches in the city with suburban white churches, which together will serve as a conduit for surplus food,” said Jepsen. “The churches will distribute the food directly as well as to channel it to existing agencies which currently administer food distribution programs.”
About $1.3 million was raised from contributions and over 1,000 volunteers served in the Washington for Jesus event, according to John Cucuzza, chairman of logistics. The remaining funds, after operating expenses, will be given to the poor.
Jepsen said she doesn’t know if there will be a Washington for Jesus in 1992, and the committee isn’t planning on holding another one. Instead, WFJ organizers hope that the international delegates will take back what they’ve learned and hold it in their countries.
The 1980 WFJ was the first major demonstration of strength of the Christian movement. The political nature of the event sent Christians scurrying back to their states to elect godly officials and form organizations and coalitions. The answer to our national ills was thought to be in more political action.
Although inroads have been made since that significant year, such as election of a conservative president, the message of the 1988 event was vastly different from the 1980 call to the nation for repentance. “The emphasis was on holiness,” said Gary Bergel, director of Intercessors for America. “The problem is that American Christians are not spending time before God and seeking His strategy on issues. If we were, the elderly and the babies would be cared for.”
After the PTL and Swaggart scandals, Christian leaders are recognizing that the Church needs to be on the judgment stand before affecting the political scene. “Before pointing the finger at the nation, the Church needs to have greater purity and holiness,” stated another Christian leader involved in the event. Holiness, said a number of ministers who addressed the gathering, will prepare God’s people in the U.S. to have the proper attitude as they seek to serve and lead the nation.