Monday, May 12, 1997
A promise to change their lives

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Clockwise from upper left: Bernard Davis Jr., Robert Evans, Victor Bagnato, William Cooper, Victor Bagnato II and Walter Gamblin.

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The guys from Buffalo - five men and a boy - rolled into town in a dusty blue van. Strapping tape held a bound-for-Promise Keepers sign to a side window.

They were an unusual bunch. A special-ed teacher rode shotgun. A construction worker, a truck driver and a hotel worker occupied the other passenger seats. A guidance counselor from an inner-city church was behind the wheel. Behind him sat his 8-year-old son. They joined 46,000 other guys at Cinergy Field for the two-day Promise Keepers conference. The spiritual wake-up calls for Christian men ran Friday evening and all day Saturday.

Between group prayers and sing-alongs came the heart of the event: Inspirational speakers talking about how men can act less goofy and more Godly.

Like so many at the religious conference, the guys from Buffalo came into the stadium clutching family Bibles and holding out hope. They wanted to come away with the tools for building better lives. The weekend changed them. Before the conference, they were vague about the repairs they wanted to make. Afterward, they had concrete plans.

Friday afternoon, I repeatedly asked Robert Evans, the special-ed teacher in the group, "What exactly do you want Promise Keepers to change in your life?" Three times, he gave an evasive answer. On the fourth try, he just said: "I want better relationships." But Saturday night, as the crowd drifted out of the stadium, Robert stood weeping in the blue seats.

"I'm going to get back with my wife," he said, wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand. "I divorced her 13 years ago. But she's the only woman I ever loved. This meeting taught me I was a fool to put my work before her."

Walter Gamblin, the truck driver in the van, is going to speak softly to his children. "When they'd ask me a question, I used to flare up and yell, 'No!' No matter what they were asking.

"Now, I'm going to be calm and take time to listen."

Bernard Davis Jr. - who has set up countless banquets in hotels - set up in his mind a summer visit with his father. He knows his dad will ask him to watch TV. If a sexually explicit scene appears on the screen, Bernard will say, "We shouldn't watch that." An argument might erupt. "But I must say it. This weekend told me sex on TV is wrong."

William Cooper will hug his wife and pat her with hands roughened by construction work. "She's been taking care of the bills while I'm getting my life together," he said. "I must show her I appreciate how strong she is and what she's done for our family."

Victor Bagnato drove the van from Buffalo. Tears spilled from his eyes and he cried out "Amen!" during the speeches. He appreciated the strength Promise Keepers gives in huge numbers.

But he knows, you can't take 46,000 guys home with you. "We have to take what we learned," Victor said, "and live it by ourselves at home.

"I'm not going to read at the kitchen table anymore," he added. "That shuts out my wife. From now on, I'll look her in the eye and we'll talk. I'll say what's in my heart. No more grunting 'yes' or 'no.' "

He bent over and rubbed the hair of his son, Victor II. As they left the stadium, the little boy looked up at his father. "All I want to do," he said, "is spend more time with my dad."

Victor swore he would.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.