About 5,000 couples gathered at the Baltimore Arena yesterday to renew their marriage vows, participating in one of the latest Christian trends: the anti-divorce movement.
The couples came for a one-day program called "I Still Do," designed to help couples rekindle the spark in their marriages. There were young couples not married yet, and elderly couples, married 50 years. There were contented couples, hoping to prevent problems, and discontented couples, trying to make things right again.
There was at least one couple - Ajai and Anju Joy - from an arranged marriage. The Philadelphians, both 29, have been married 1 1/2 years but attended their first marriage seminar after six weeks. They woke at 5 a.m. yesterday to drive to Baltimore to attend "I Still Do."
"We want to do this before we make mistakes," explained Anju Joy, a homemaker who said she's still adjusting to married life.
"I Still Do," in its second year, is the brainchild of the Rev. Dennis Rainey, executive director of FamilyLife, a nonprofit ministry based in Little Rock, Ark. He said his aim is to "build a movement nationwide that says no to divorce."
About 80,000 people have attended the seminar in eight cities, including Baltimore. The event is scheduled to move on to Grand Rapids, Mich., Pittsburgh, Houston and Memphis, Tenn.
Admission per person was $75 at the door; an advance ticket cost $55. Bonnie Cuocci of White Marsh received a ticket to "I Still Do" as a surprise sixth-anniversary present from her husband, who also attended.
The conference, which resembles Promise Keepers - a fundamentalist Christian men's movement - includes lectures, lunch and a marriage-covenant document to be signed by couples in front of family and friends.
Of the certificate, Rainey said, "I wanted to create a document that children would fight over when their parents died."
Lecture topics included "Communication Skills for Lovers" and "Unlock the Door to Intimacy." During breaks, participants perused books such as "Never Walk Away" and "Parenting Today's Adolescent."
Soaring divorce rates
The "I Still Do" movement comes as divorce rates are soaring. Studies show that up to half of all marriages end in divorce. In 1998, there were 19.4 million divorced U.S. adults, representing about 10 percent of the population.
Rainey said he started "I Still Do" to battle the high divorce rate.
"We now have no-fault divorce in all 50 states," he said, "and what's no one's fault is no one's responsibility."
Rainey said he believes that the way to a happy marriage can be found in the Bible. Although he said he does not belong to a denomination, he supports Southern Baptist views of marriage, including the admonition that a woman should submit to her husband.
"We have a generation of people who are growing up today who don't understand what love is," he told the crowd yesterday. "There is a real love, a love that stepped out of eternity and became flesh."
Founded in 1976 by the international evangelical group Campus Crusade for Christ, FamilyLife conducts weekly radio broadcasts and regional marriage and parent conferences. The organization says that more than 2 million people tune into FamilyLife Today radio broadcasts every week and that about 890,000 have attended FamilyLife events and conferences during the past 24 years.
Anissa Brown of Bowie said she and her husband came to the conference to remind each other why they got married.
"It's important to remind us you need to continue working on your marriage, no matter what," she said. "We have one child, and we're working, and amid the hustle and bustle, you kind of forget the gift that God has given you."
Brown, 31, said she wants to have a covenant ceremony in which she and her husband, Anthony Brown, 33, will renew their vows.
Bonita Thornton, a 49-year-old Baltimore resident who volunteers for FamilyLife and leads Bible study groups, attended the conference with her husband, Tazwell Thornton.
"I can learn how to really love up that guy, and he can learn to love me," she said. "Marriage isn't just a contract. Couples want to do the marriage thing right."