Pentecostal denominations move toward racial reconciliation

Reconciliation has begun to emerge among the historically segregated sects of modern American Pentecostalism – the branch of Evangelical Protestantism known for exuberant forms of worship and ecstatic speaking in tongues.

By , Staff writer

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    Students sing and pray during chapel at Zion Bible College in Haverill, Mass. in December 2012. The college, part of the Assemblies of God USA, teaches and trains students for the Pentecostal ministry. In January 2013, the college was renamed Northpoint Bible College.
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Forty-five years ago, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon in which he observed, “Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America.”

It was a fact that always bothered the Rev. Thomas Barclay, senior pastor of Progressive Beulah Pentecostal Church in Chicago’s south side, who was 12 years old at the time.

“I’ve been in the Pentecostal church all my life, but I always noticed the separation between white and black,” says Mr. Barclay, who also heads the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, a small but worldwide consortium of black churches. “So as a little boy growing up, I asked the question why, but nobody would answer the questions. So as I got older, I’m still asking the same questions.”

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Barclay’s questions, of course, laid bare a painful century of racism throughout American Protestantism, and not too much has changed since Dr. King uttered his now oft-quoted words.

But over the past few months, a simmering movement of reconciliation has begun to emerge among the historically segregated sects of modern American Pentecostalism – the free-wheeling, grass-roots branch of Evangelical Protestantism known for exuberant forms of worship and ecstatic speaking in tongues.

Last week, Barclay’s denomination signed a historic agreement of cooperation with the much larger Assemblies of God USA, a historically white denomination of American Pentecostals with just under 13,000 congregations nationwide and about 3 million adherents. The groups agreed to share resources and include each other’s members in national events, especially among their youths.

Last fall, too, leaders from the Assemblies of God met, for the first time ever, with leaders from the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination and the largest Pentecostal consortium of congregations in the country with more than 6 million members. The groups agreed to maintain a long-neglected dialogue.

Yet coming during a time of stark political divisions in the US – divisions that still can carry deep racial overtones – the reconciliation of these Pentecostal groups carries a certain measure of historical poignancy, and even a kind of theological irony. Indeed, the early days of Pentecostalism were a rare time when blacks and whites and men and women worshipped freely together, and leaders could come from any of these. And some of today's segregated denominations are beginning to rediscover their roots as long-lost cousins.

Most American Pentecostals trace their lineage to a 1906 movement known as the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. It began when a one-eyed black preacher from Texas, William Seymour, a son of former slaves, began to preach and speak in tongues on the front porch of what the Los Angeles Times called “a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street.”

Eventually, hordes of ecstatic crowds of black, Hispanic, and white neighbors filled the streets for days, worshipping in a frenzy of shouts and spiritual tongues – moments Pentecostals call “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

As word of the street revival grew, more and more people began to come to worship. In their fervor, very few took account of their fellow worshippers’ race or even gender – a radical occurrence for the time, and one that outside observers often looked on with disgust.

“Once you get the Holy Spirit involved, all bets are off,” says Randall Balmer, chairman of the department of religion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “And that’s the beauty of Pentecostalism, that people were responding to the promptings of the Spirit – and I’m willing to acknowledge that this is what it was. And the Spirit does not make judgments according to gender, or to race, and that’s the beauty of these movements.”

From an anthropological perspective, movements like these often include “liminal” moments, those times of personal and social disorientation that occur during various types of rituals and worship. Participants of such rituals sometimes undergo a process of social conversion, a restructuring of their personal identity and sense of community.

During the nascent years of Pentecostalism, participants’ emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit allowed for a surprising and inclusive range of leaders, including blacks and women.  

“When I teach the Azusa revival in class, I always try to emphasize what a huge, huge tragedy this was, that Pentecostalism lost its interracial character as it began to succumb to sociological inevitability – that is, as this enthusiastic movement began to routinize and move into its institutional forms,” says Professor Balmer.

In 1914, leaders established the General Council of the Assemblies of God in Hot Springs, Ark., but it quickly began to deny voting privileges to women, and eventually refused to ordain black ministers, officially referring them to the Church of God in Christ.

Barclay’s denomination, the United Pentecostal Council, formed in 1914 after the Assemblies of God refused to sanction a black missionary to Liberia.

But about four years ago, Barclay reached out to George Wood, the general superintendent for Assemblies of God in the US.

“I knew nothing about this group, I knew nothing about its history,” says Dr. Wood. “So it was a very welcome call from [Barclay] – and it caused me a lot of embarrassment that that ever happened in our history.”

Challenges remain as the groups seek to reconcile from this history – and perhaps even to reunite again. The mostly white Assemblies of God remain politically conservative – 89 percent of pastors identify as Republican in one survey, and many members are active in religious politics on the right – while the black churches overwhelmingly identify as Democratic.

But 40 percent of the Assemblies of God are now from minority groups, Wood says, including about 300 mostly black congregations.

“I’ve been around the block a few times, and I’ve never seen a day when there’s been closer participation, friendship, fellowship,” says Wood. “There's recognition that we’ve got to be kingdom minded, and not focus on our own tribe, so to speak. And so I think there’s just a greater awareness that we’re all part of something that’s bigger than any one of our individual groups, and we want to be in good relationships with one another, not competitive with one another, but complementary.”

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