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Multidenominational Palm Sunday Service Coming To The "Buckle" of the Bible Belt

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Carlos Morales
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Gary Rhodes leads choir members during a rehearsal for "The Gathering"

This weekend on Palm Sunday more than 100 churches will come together in attempt to fill McLane stadium for a countywide worship service called “The Gathering.” While massive worship gatherings like this aren’t uncommon in Texas, it’s the first in Waco in recent times. 

For the past 3 weeks choir coordinator Gary Rhodes and about 200 other people have rehearsed inside the Woodway Baptist church.  On this day, the center of the church is filled and Rhodes waves his hands emphatically, motioning to his choir to add emphasis, as they sing over a music track – the group has only a couple days to fine tune their singing before “The Gathering”

“That’s a pretty short time span to put something like this together so it’s a pretty massive event," Rhodes said, "but I think the Lord’s put together a good team of pastors that have some experience in planning events like this that have really gotten behind it.”

According to event-organizer and pastor Ramiro Peña the impetus for this countywide service came from Baylor board of trustees member DraytonMcLane – the namesake for the newly minted 93-acre stadium.  Before this event, the closest and most recent worship service – in size and scope – were a series of Easter services held at Minute Maid Park – home of the Houston Astros. McLane also spearheaded those services. According to the Houston Chronicle, the two events that Houston-based pastor Joel Osteen at the baseball stadium recorded an attendance of roughly 40,000 people.  

“What we’re expecting here, 30 thousand plus people to gather is the biggest worship gathering that I know of certainly for this region,” Peña said. 

“The Gathering” will bring together more than 100 churches of varying denominations from across the region in attempt to fill up the 45,000-capacity McLane stadium. That shouldn’t be too hard considering Waco’s rich religious history. According to the most recent report from the Association of Religion Data Archives, there are more than 144 thousand congregational adherents in McLeenan County - 60 percent of the county’s population.

Roger Olson, a professor of Christian theology and ethics at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, said that in the 16 years he’s been in Waco he hasn’t seen or heard of an event of this proportion but he doesn’t doubt that Peña and his organizers can fill up the stadium.

“I don’t think it’ll be hard especially if they have a well-known celebrity speaker and some musicians that are well known and speaker", Olson said. "Yeah, I don’t think it’ll be difficult at all. This is one of the most religious communities in America as far as the number of churches and church-goers, the percentage of church attendance. This is the buckle of the bible belt, Jerusalem on the Brazos, people have called it.”