By 7:15 on Thursday night, women were already crying. By 7:30, a few were speaking in tongues, their arms raised heavenward, or kneeling in the chilly concrete aisles of the Dallas Convention Center's Area Hall C. Onstage, a muscular, clean-cut guy with sandy hair and a black V-neck T-shirt strummed an amplified acoustic guitar. Enormous screens flanking the stage flashed his image across the vast room, built to hold about 5,000, which was a little less than half-full.
"You're altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me," the guy sang. A small army of girls in "Choose Life" T-shirts gazed adoringly back.
A few weeks ago, we told you Pastor Lou Engle was coming to town to hold an all-women anti-abortion rally, just a few months after he and several other members of his group TheCall were heavily involved in Rick Perry's prayer-palooza The Response. Unlike many of the youth-oriented rallies TheCall puts on, this one didn't fixate on the "sexual insanity" (Engle's words) of homosexuality, an issue Engle is so obsessed with he even visited Uganda to support the anti-gay laws there. Instead, during both a three-hour prayer service Thursday night and one that stretched over eight hours on Good Friday, the focus was on ending both abortion and "Obamacare" through prayer.
Engle made the rally's mixture of political and supernatural purposes clear when he bounded onstage Thursday night. "Arise, oh God, and scatter your enemies!" he roared at the crowd, who screamed back in response. "Give yourself to God!" Engle is a large man with a bristly, greying mustache; he never speaks in anything other than a husky, throaty roar, and he constantly sways forwards and backwards as he preaches.
"We didn't gather here to have a nice little worship service!" he informed the crowd. "We're actually creating a throne," he explained, to contain God and the "angelic hosts by the thousands" who would be attending the rally. Many of them, he said, had come with 39 women, part of an organization called Back To Life, who had just walked from Houston to Dallas to protest legal abortion's roots in Texas.
"Who would have guessed that when they crossed over the county line of Dallas, 12 tornadoes exploded," Engle cried. "And no deaths!" The tornadoes, the hail, the grounded planes at the airport -- all of this, he told the women and girls and more than a few men in the crowd -- were a sign that God would hear the prayers of those assembled, and use them to influence worldly affairs.
"What happens tonight could actually shift the Supreme Court of Earth," Engle told his audience. "God is on his throne tonight. Tonight the scepter of the king gets stretched out. You're not here for a good time. You're actually here to move heaven, and we believe that will take place."
Rhetoric like this, which blends the political and the spiritual so thoroughly it's hard to tell where one stops and the other begins, is par for the course for Engle, TheCall, and a host of other similar groups, including the International House of Prayer, which had a heavy presence at both the Esther Call and the Response. They're all part of a charismatic Christian movement called New Apostolic Reformation, which, among other things, is heavily concerned with getting its followers into positions of power in American politics, business, and culture. It's all in preparation for the end of days, which participants at the Esther Call seemed certain were almost upon us.
The rally was named for an Old Testament heroine who saved the Jewish people from being destroyed; the "Esthers" present at the rally, as women were referred to, were repeatedly told that their job was to help save humanity from destruction by ending the "culture of death" around abortion.
"Our main intention is to bring healing and repentance to the people in the room first," said Christy Carlson, 26. "Then we ask God to end abortion in our nation and send revival and healing to women who have experienced abortion." That included birth control and emergency contraception, she said.
Carlson, who had long blonde hair, a trendy string of large turquoise beads around her neck, and a low-key way of speaking, is an "intercessionary missionary" at the Dallas chapter of International House of Prayer (yes, IHOP), located in Farmer's Branch. It's technically known as the House of Zerubbabel, or HOZ for short. Missionaries pray full-time, she said, offering up a mixture of devotional prayers and pleas for "intercession for our city."
Carlson also explained that legal abortion had created "a blood guilt in our nation."
"Innocent blood has been spilled," she said matter-of-factly. "God demands justice. We're here to cry out for God to extend mercy to our nation." But if that didn't happen, she said, "there could be a judgment," something she believes is already occurring. She pointed to what she called the "economic and geopolitical shaking" throughout the world as "an effort of God to ignite repentance."
All of this wouldn't be out of place on an episode of The 700 Club, where Pat Robertson and his ilk have long been criticized for blaming natural disasters on things like feminism and abortion. But what's fascinating about IHOP and TheCall events is the youth of the participants. All the IHOP staffers, many of the speakers onstage and most of the attendees were young, trendy, even dreadlocked and or lightly tattooed. Engle has found a way to make steely, hard-line religious fundamentalism attractive to young people. The vibe of the Esther Call -- purplish lighting, a pop/rock-esque backing band, a smoke machine -- resembled nothing so much as a rock concert.
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But again and again, the army of speakers onstage reminded the audience of the event's true purpose.
"Close those fear clinics, Lord," one woman prayed into the microphone, the cameras magnifying her image. "Close every abortion clinic in this nation. Remove the money from Planned Parenthood. Strip them of our money. Give money back to the adoption movement in the United States." Another woman prayed for each Supreme Court justice in turn, asking that they all be rendered anti-abortion.
"Thank God for the Texas Legislature," added another woman, part of a long parade of speakers who came onstage, said a few words, and disappeared without introduction. "And thank God for Rick Perry. I want you to know that you put them in office," she told the crowd, who cheered wildly. "And they are moving heaven and Earth."