By Charles Honey
Copyright 2005 The Grand Rapids Press
All rights reserved. Used with permission

Don and Scott Mahoney wove the ties of a close father-son relationship with fishing, Cub Scouts and church youth groups.

But it was not until they started attending Promise Keepers events that they added the spiritual strands that brought them closer, they say.

“Before we started going together like that, spiritually, he didn’t listen to me,” says Don Mahoney, 71, of his 42-year-old son. “But after listening to other speakers, we just came together, father and son in the Lord. Now, he listens to me and I listen to him.”

“It makes me a better husband and father,” says Scott Mahoney, a father of two daughters who lives in Allendale. “It focuses me on trying to be more Christ-like and less self-centered.”

That is touchdown talk to leaders of the evangelical men’s organization, who say their ministry is needed as much now as it was when former University of Colorado Coach Bill McCartney began bringing guys together in football stadiums in 1990.

“There are guys who haven’t heard this message and need to hear it, and guys who have heard it and need to keep working on it,” says Fred Ramirez, a regional director for the Denver-based group. “If we went every single day of the year filling arenas, we still wouldn’t have scratched the surface.”

Organizers hope to fill Van Andel Arena with nearly 10,000 men committed to faith and family for a conference Aug. 2-3.

It is one of 16 conferences Promise Keepers will hold this year and the second in Grand Rapids. More than 9,000 men came to Van Andel Arena in 1998 to praise God and the PK ideals of becoming better husbands, fathers and spiritual soldiers.

But this is not the same Promise Keepers that in 1995 jammed more than 72,000 believers into the Pontiac Silverdome. The organization teetered on the edge of financial collapse in 1998, and since severely downsized its staff and moved its stadium conferences to mid-sized arenas.

But after 12 years of emotional embraces and weeping confessions, Promise Keepers is alive and kicking with an in-your-face slogan, “Storm the Gates,” complete with billboards of men riding horseback with swords drawn.

Their critics are alive and well, too, including those who find the billboard campaign too militaristic. Gay- and women’s-rights protesters demonstrated at PK rallies this summer. Three people were arrested in Tampa, Fla.

Even staunch supporters say Promise Keepers has not fulfilled some of its promise.

“I think Promise Keepers was the most powerful movement of men in the history of the Christian world,” says Clare DeGraaf, a member of the local Christian Businessmen’s Committee who is active in men’s ministry.

But Promise Keepers took a wrong turn in 1998 when it stopped charging admission to its conferences, DeGraaf said.

Even though the charges were resumed two years later, the financial fallout was severe, causing the layoff of 345 staffers. Regional field offices, including one in West Michigan, were cut.

“They had it all going right, and they made a huge strategic mistake,” DeGraaf says. “The momentum they had going failed.”

He says the setback cost the movement many followers and hurt its ability to help churches start men’s ministries.

Participation fell from 1.2 million in 1996 to roughly 350,000 last year.

Many men, however, started small accountability groups due to Promise Keepers, and the organization still has much to offer, says DeGraaf, who plans to attend the Van Andel conference.

“There will be new guys who come and will be blessed and changed forever.”

Plenty of critics

Ramirez says the organization is breaking ground by holding events for teen boys and their fathers, starting an international arm, and organizing a pastors’ conference set for February.

Still, it is increasingly difficult to get men to conferences, says Ramirez, who was in the area last week drumming up support for the Van Andel event. So far, about 5,000 men are registered.

“There’s some mentality of ‘been there, done that,'” says Ramirez, a retired New York detective who runs security for Promise Keepers. “Guys who say that have really missed the point. None of us is ever really done.

“We have recurring issues that men need to deal with. The only way to deal with that is to be in connection with other men. Men really only open up to other guys.”

On that score, Promise Keepers earns high marks even among those who have other issues with the group. A local organizer of men’s counseling and education groups credits the movement with giving men “permission to talk about their fears, dreams and struggles” in settings where they feel comfortable.

But the PK leadership also perpetuates “patriarchal beliefs about men,” says Randy Flood, director of the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill in Grand Rapids.

“That old male paradigm of, ‘There’s an enemy out there, you’ve got to protect your territory and your family,’ is not functional anymore,” Flood says. “The men’s movement is about confronting yourself and your own fears about climbing out of the gender straightjacket of masculinity.”

He also shares the widespread concern that Promise Keepers calls for men to be leaders in their homes gives some the green light to subordinate or even abuse women.

Some men benefit from Promise Keepers, but others come away with the wrong idea, the Rev. Kathryn Davelaar says.

“That whole leadership thing, if it’s taken to the extent of not being mutual submission, I just see that as dangerous,” says Davelaar, pastor of Hope Reformed Church in Holland.

“Promise Keepers is like a lot of good things — it doesn’t take much to tweak it into something that can be harmful.”

PK officials contend being the spiritual head of the household means a man should be a better servant to his wife and a better father to his children. That includes being more open with his feelings — something they say women know how to do.

“We think the ladies get it,” says Ramirez, the regional PK official. “The guys are the problems.”

He adds that up to one-half of conference volunteers are women. Women are free to attend but are not encouraged to, he says, because men are less likely to speak freely about their problems with women around.

Race is another issue that dogs Promise Keepers. Conference attendees remain overwhelmingly white.

Racial reconciliation remains “the promise where we’ve had the least success and the greatest battle,” Ramirez said.

Racially and denominationally, “We probably have made more inroads than any other Christian organization,” he says, noting nearly one-third of this year’s conference speakers are black, and the organization’s top two executive vice presidents are men of color.

“But we have not moved in as far as we would have liked to.”

The Rev. David May, director of Grand Rapids’ Racial Justice Institute, says the two PK conferences he attended were not as “inviting or welcoming” as they could be.

“I enjoyed the songs, I enjoyed the messages, but they didn’t reflect me and my culture in a way I could feel excited about,” says May, a Baptist minister.

Seeking more minorities

He says a wider range of blacks and other minorities should be in on the planning, and conferences should include more speakers with “magnet power” for blacks, such as Bishop T. D. Jakes.

Then, there are the battlefield billboards.

They show sword-wielding men charging on horseback silhouetted against a red background. It is a dramatic depiction of the conference theme, “Storm the Gates.” Organizers say it refers to the gates of hell and the temptations men face.

Most people will not get the symbolism, Clare DeGraaf says.

“Particularly in light of what we’re facing now, it was a poor choice of slogans,” says DeGraaf, referring to the military buildup in response to terrorism.

“I’d like men to be more thoughtful and reflective and say, ‘We don’t have to be strutting our biceps and pressing spiritual iron.'”

Randy Flood adds: “That hypermasculine language contradicts what they’re trying to do with the men. They’re saying be more open, be more compassionate, be sensitive.”

Exactly, says John Scafe, a former West Michigan staffer for Promise Keepers.

Now a PK volunteer, Scafe says the image symbolizes men’s battle to keep their marriages intact and against temptations such as pornography.

“We’re all in this battle together,” Scafe says. “The more we do it together, the more we can overcome the issues.”

“There is something of a warrior in every man’s soul and heart,” Ramirez adds. “That is just the way God made us.

“We’re challenging men to battle for their spiritual life.”

Don Mahoney knows about battles: He first came to faith while being shot at in the Korean War. He grew in faith thanks to his wife, Nora.

Now, Mahoney, of Grand Rapids, shares his convictions with other men in a Bible study group, where guys seek help for their daily struggles.

He also will offer prayers at the Van Andel Arena event, along with his son, for men battling marital strife, substance abuse and other problems.

“We strengthen each other,” Mahoney says. “If you’re out there alone, you get picked off. But in unity together with Christ, you can stand against a mighty army.”