Driving guitar riffs and raging lyrics echo off the marbled steps of the Capitol - sounding like the popular Seattle band Pearl Jam.
Except on this brilliant April day, the music is a kind of rock jam for Jesus. Teens and generation Xers with crosses instead of swastikas tattooed on their skin, raise their hands to heaven on the Washington Mall greensward - swaying to the sound of groups like 3rd Day, Spin Cycle, and a host of other Christian rock bands assembled at the outset of a two-day event called "Washington for Jesus."
The music is part of an avid gathering of evangelical Christians on the Mall, the nation's most public park, site of the Million Man March last October. Planned for three years by a Virginia Beach pastor and run out of the former Iranian Embassy (renamed the Prince of Peace Embassy), the event allowed the charismatic wing of the growing evangelical movement to be seen and heard - even if the scope of the event never matched the apocalyptic rhetoric or numbers promised beforehand.
"Don't Just Live and Die, Shake the Nation," was the hard-edged '90s motto for the meeting, repeated on MTV-like ad spots and on an internet Web site.
On the Mall, four giant Sony "Jumbotron" video-screens fresh from the Boston Marathon and a National Hot Rod Association event in Atlanta are spaced between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Many in the crowd are working-class black and Hispanic Pentacostalists, and rural whites. Most do not belong to a denomination. They attend the growing number of independent churches with names like National Church of God. For most, faith is equated not with churchgoing, but "living in the Spirit."
Steve, who works at a factory in Connecticut, says the Bible transformed his life five years ago. "I'm not interested in religion anymore," he says. "I'm into the power of God in all aspects of life."
The Mall event featured several changes in style and approach. Rock and roll, for example, once regarded by evangelicals as "devil music," is a growth industry. Jeff Fenholt, former lead singer for the rock group "Black Sabbath," is today a Christian who helped organize Washington for Jesus. "There is a spirit coming to the youth of this country in a whole new way," he says. "The Lord can use any means He wants to reach people. If part of it is rock music, that's fine."
Backstage, lead guitar for Spin Cycles, Eric Champion, says of his music: "It just goes with trying to reach this generation. In the Bible, Jesus went to the people in the streets. He didn't just talk to like the upper strata in the church."
Unlike fundamentalist Christians, charismatics believe in the power of God to act in the world, often through healing and other inspirational "gifts of the spirit."
The event, which almost escaped the attention of the mainstream evangelical community, has occurred twice before, in '80 and '88.
"This meeting is born of a prophetic word given to us," says Bishop John Gimenez, head of the Rock Church in Virginia Beach, Va., who with his wife, Anna Gimenez, is described as having had a "vision" about the meeting. A drug-addict for 16 years, Mr. Gimenez was released from a New York jail in 1963 with no place to sleep. He worked as a janitor at a church he later preached in, then started the first Rock Church, a group that numbers 350 churches today.
Yesterday, parents and elders joined on the Mall to pray about the moral chaos and atheism they feel is leading America and American families to ruin.
"Everyone comes to D.C. to protest something," says an Assembly of God minister from North Carolina. "We are going to have church for two days."
Nor was there a political agenda. Conservative Christian political heavyweights like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson spoke. But Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, for example, was not invited.
Perhaps one of the stories about the event is the story itself. With religion becoming "hot" news, organizations such as USA Today, Time magazine, CNN, C-Span, The Washington Post, Associated Press, and others turned out. Partly, this was due to the large projected numbers of attendees by meeting organizers - which never panned out. Press releases assured a million Christian youths (organizers told reporters that bus and plane charters had "confirmed" that number), and news editors thought in terms of a Christian Million Man March. On Monday, the actual numbers were closer to 25,000.
Yet a nurse from Keene, N.H., says the rally has been worth it: "It is easy to [give up] when all you see is evil and destruction, when you see that it is easy to believe God is not in the world. But I'm here for a common bond to feel the power of the spirit."