HOUSTON — Thousands of worshipers poured into Reliant Stadium Saturday and staged a boisterous prayer meeting with gospel music and Christian rock, emotional sermons and perhaps a political boost for the man who started it all: likely presidential candidate Rick Perry, the governor of Texas.
Organizers said more than 30,000 showed up for the high-energy event.
Perry took to the stage shortly before noon, sounding like a revivalist preacher as he urged participants to embrace Jesus and pray for help at a time of economic decline and family strife. He wrapped up the event a few hours later with another brief but more jubilant appearance on stage.
During his remarks early in the day, Perry said God's agenda is "not a political agenda, his agenda is a salvation agenda."
"He is a wise God and he is wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party, or for that matter, he is wise enough not to be affiliated with any man-made institution," Perry said.
The longest-serving Texas governor also offered up a prayer "for our president," the man he would like to get a shot at running against in a likely bid for the White House. The event was described as nonpolitical, but as Perry nears a decision to run for president, the timing of the prayer rally could pump up evangelical voters, who will play a key role in the early nominating states.
Perry said God was the "only hope" for a nation in crisis.
"Our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home, we see fear in the market place, we see anger in the halls of governments, and as a nation we have forgotten who made us," Perry said. "We cry out for [God's] forgiveness." Afterward, in his closing remarks, Perry said "people will discuss for years to come" the Christian ceremony.
Perry fasted during the daylong event, as he has asked others to do, but he has a dinner planned Saturday night with friends and organizers of The Response, said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. Many other worshipers who showed up Saturday declined to participate in the fasting part of the event and could be seen eating smoothies and other treats from the Reliant concession stands.
The Response, nicknamed “Prayerpalooza,” took on the feel of a mega-church ceremony from the moment it began. Christian conservative leader James Dobson formally kicked it off at about 10 a.m. Before he took the stage, country singer Ricky Skaggs and gospel singers from the Houston Mass Choir warmed up the crowd with religious songs and prayers. Throughout the ceremony, worshipers sang and wept and waved their arms in a prayerful frenzy, shouting "amen" and calling for divine intervention.
A few dozen protesters outside highlighted the intense controversy the event has generated.
As the concert-like ceremony began, Dobson said some 22,000 were in attendance, almost three times the number that officials say had signed up by midweek. Then Kansas City preacher Luis Cataldo, director of The Response, said that even more worshipers were jamming up traffic trying to get to Reliant. By early Saturday afternoon, Eric Bearse, spokesman for the event, said over 30,000 showed up.
Dobson said the worshipers were gathered to pray for a miraculous exit from a series of crushing problems.
“We’ve come to the end of our rope. And we have come here to day to call on the lord for a miracle," Dobson said. "I believe God is going to hear our prayer today." During the ceremony, worshipers — some speaking in Spanish — came on stage to pray for an end to "abortion in America," racism, the breakdown of the family and other social ills.
Outside the stadium, Rodney Hinds said he came from Amarillo to represent the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the organization that attempted to prevent Perry from participating. The case was thrown out of a Houston federal court.
“I’m not protesting the event. I’m protesting the fact the governor is abusing the power of his office to promote a religious event. He’s not representing me. He’s representing his ideology, which is an abuse of power as a governor," Hinds said.
Other protesters chanted and carried placards saying, "Preacher Perry Must Resign," and "Hate is Not Holy."
The Response had sparked widespread criticism from political groups, atheists, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and others. The official sponsors, including the American Family Association, and various endorsers have been criticized as extremists and bigots. Bryan J. Fischer, an American Family Association spokesman known for his harsh anti-gay writings, poked fun at all the media on hand trying to make sense of the religious outpouring. He wasn't given a spot on stage but was tweeting from the audience.
In one Tweet, Fischer said "300-500 media types here for The Response. Will drive them crazy: 7 hours of church. More than some have attended their entire lives." Later, he said the event was a "total bummer for mainstream media, hoping for epic fail" and defended Perry, saying "his faith is the real deal." Perry thanked the American Family Association in his concluding remarks.
The event included pastors who have come under fire for making sometimes outrageous statements, but on Saturday they seemed to be watching their words. Mike Bickle, the founder and director of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, even said the worshipers loved Barack Obama.
"Lord give him wisdom, this man, whom we love!" Bickle said. "Strengthen the hands of this president."
Bickle once said, in remarks captured on a video posted on YouTube, that Oprah Winfrey is a precursor to the “Harlot Babylon” movement that he says will bring on the Antichrist at the end of this world.
Only one of the 50 U.S. governors accepted Perry’s invitation to attend, Sam Brownback of Kansas. He took part in the worship ceremony with a brief speech in which he prayed for forgiveness. Brownback had come under fire back home for accepting the invitation from Perry, and it wasn't clear until Saturday that he would show up.
Organizers of the gathering said the controversy has done nothing but fuel more interest in The Response. Buses picked up people all over Central Texas to attend, and hundreds of churches and individuals — in all 50 states — had signed up to simulcast the event in their local communities, organizers said. The event, which cost the sponsors over $1 million, was highly orchestrated and choreographed, and organizers were careful to keep the element of surprise. They didn't distribute an official program until the day of the event, warned it could change and kept reporters guessing about the governor's exact role.
The interest from news outlets might be greater than anything Perry has encountered in his nearly 30-year career in Texas politics. More than 230 members of the media, including representatives from all the major national TV networks and newspapers, have signed up for credentials, officials said.
Protests were staged outside Reliant Stadium and in Austin. Outside the Capitol in Austin, a few hundred protesters, including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, showed up to criticize Perry. Doggett said he would travel around the country to warn voters about Perry's budget-slashing record.
"I have a powerful weapon against his candidacy, and it's called the truth," Doggett said.
Texas Tribune writer Beth Brown contributed to this report.