HOUSTON - Thousands of worshipers converged on Houston's Reliant Stadium on Saturday for Gov. Rick Perry's day of prayer and fasting, filling the cavernous sports venue with an uplifting revival-like atmosphere and calls for miraculous intervention from God to help heal the nation's critical problems.
Spiritual music ranging from solemn choral arrangements to old-fashioned gospel and up-tempo Christian rock set the tone for the seven-hour gathering as participants began arriving well before the official 10 a.m. start. Perry planned to stay for the duration and addressed the crowd at about 11:25 a.m.
"Like all of you, I love this country deeply ... Indeed, the only thing you love more is the living Christ," Perry said as he opened his remarks.
Called The Response, the gathering attracted national media because of Perry's emergence as a likely contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. But organizers and participants alike declared that they were leaving politics outside in a day of spiritualism devoted strictly to prayer, Scripture reading and Holy worship.
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"This is going to be a good day," declared Luis Cataldo of the International House of Prayer of Kansas City. "We're here all day to worship Jesus."
Response spokesman Eric Bearse said he believed that attendance had already exceeded the expected 8,000 in advance of the 10 a.m. opening and said that the arena was configured to hold as many as 50,000. The stadium, which has a capacity of 71,000, is the home of the Houston Texans football team, which was conducting a training camp across the street while the Response was underway.
More than 50 protesters gathered at an intersection at the edge to denounce the American Family Association and other program sponsors for what they said were exclusionary religious views and extremist positions toward non-Christians and gays.
Some of the demonstrators also assailed Perry's participation in the religious event as a blatant political display while he is moving toward a potential presidential bid.
"Pastor Perry must resign," one sign read. "Keep church and state separate," said another.
At least 15 members of the Fort Worth's First Congregational United Church of Christ made the trip to join the protest. "Our view is that the Gospel is one of inclusion - not exclusion," said pastor Katherine Godby. "We came because we want people to know that that there is an alternative to what the American Family Association's view of The Gospel is."
Undaunted by scorching Texas heat, participants continued to converge on the arena throughout the morning, causing massive traffic tie-ups. The event was simulcast in more than 1,000 churches in all 50 states, said organizers.
Rita Baird, 55, and her daughter Angie, 29, flew in from their hometown of Manly, Iowa, and were among the first arrivals, reading from the Bible's Book of Joel as they waited for the program to begin.
"I came down to pray for our country," said Rita Baird, saying that she was not focused on the presidential race and did not know if she would support Perry if he enters the race. "We came mostly to worship Jesus," said her daughter.
Other participants also stressed the apolitical nature of the event.
"I just want to seek God," said Sarah Munyu, a graduate student at Texas Southern University. "I don't have a political agenda." She wore a black T-shirt that declared: "Love God. Love People."
(Dave Montgomery is the Ft. Woth Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief.)