Christianity's Race-Mixers

400 million strong, Pentecostals -- Holy Rollers, tongue-speakers, "negro ranters" -- have been called "Christianity's Third Force." And after generations in separate wildernesses, Pentecostal churches are returning to their original vision of inclusion across racial and cultural lines -- a vision some critics brand as heretical.

By Dan Ramirez
May 19, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)
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LOS ANGELES -- "Whites and blacks mix in a religious frenzy," was how local newspapers derided the Pentecostal movement's first meeting. The gathering of black and white worshippers in a "barn-like negro church" on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906 left the Times surprised that "any respectable white persons ... cast in their lot with the negro ranters."

Many "respectable whites" must have turned a deaf ear. On Sunday, some 400 million Pentecostals, charismatics and other "tongues-speaking" progeny of that original Los Angeles revival gathered to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost -- that moment when the Holy Spirit appeared before the Apostles, occasioning uninhibited celebration among believers.


They have much to celebrate. Some two-thirds of all Latin American Evangelicals are Pentecostals, and several traditionally Catholic countries, energized by the revivalist enthusiasm, are projected to transform into majority-Protestant status within the next 50 years. The movement has grown so dramatically in 100 years that some theologians call it "Christianity's Third Force."

And after succumbing to the racist mores of the wider culture for the better part of the century, more and more faithful are returning to the movement's original multiracial vision.

Evangelists living in the United States now make pilgrimages to Korean mega-churches, while media-savvy Brazilian missionaries are buying downtown theaters in U.S. cities and converting them into centers of healing and empowerment for Spanish-speaking immigrants. Storefront "aleluya" churches muscle for dominance with "Santeria botanicas" in New York, Miami and Mexico City. Youth choirs in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Guadalajara sway and clap to Spanish-language renditions of African-American gospel hits, while their counterparts in San Diego, El Paso and Los Angeles master the latest polka, cumbria, salsa and meringue compositions from gospel artists in Mexico and Central America.


In a sense this recalls the promising first years of the movement, when "the 'color line' was washed away in the blood," in the words of historian Frank Bartleman, an eyewitness to the first revival meeting at Azusa Street. Those outside the movement, by contrast, seized on this mixing as a transgression, proof of the movement's heretical nature. The Los Angeles Times was especially displeased with the way several white women testified about leaving home and husband to follow the "one-eyed negro leader" William Seymour. Even more scandalous, the paper told of a black "comely wench throwing her arms about the neck of some white man in the audience ... begging him to 'come to the altar.'"

Within two decades of its founding, U.S. Pentecostalism had fragmented completely along racial lines. William Seymour, undermined by his white co-religionists, died with a broken heart in 1922 in Los Angeles. In the years that followed, white Pentecostals pushed upward mobility and social and theological respectability in the American evangelical family, while black Pentecostals joined other African-American churches in constructing alternative spaces. Predictably, black and white Pentecostals found themselves at opposite sides of the barricades during much of the civil rights movement.

Today a new wind is blowing. In Memphis recently, black and white Pentecostal leaders knelt and washed each other's feet in tearful repentance. Racial reconciliation and immigrant dignity have also made it onto the agenda of the Promise Keepers, an evangelical men's movement with a significant Pentecostal constituency. Successful suburban Pentecostal churches now boast a growing racial diversity -- in membership as well as in liturgy and black gospel music -- albeit sometimes by draining parishioners and talent away from poorer black and Latino congregations.


This is not to say that for every fervent multicultural embrace at a Promise Keeper's rally there is an equally loving reception for the newest outsiders -- the illegal aliens, the AFDC mothers, the gang bangers. One of the main champions of California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 was an ordained Assembly of God minister (and former regional commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service), while many of Prop. 187's victims worshipped at Assembleads de Dios churches throughout the state.

But the primal power and piety revealed on Azusa Street is once again beckoning. On Saturday, the day before Pentecost Sunday, Pentecostal Heritage Inc., the African-American custodians of the Azusa Street building in Los Angeles -- which now houses a Filipino congregation, several doors away from a Latino Apostolic congregation -- held a day-long celebration of healing and restoration. For them this riot- and fire-ravaged district is in greater need than ever of a response to the prayer of the original revival: "Lord, Send the Rain."

Dan Ramirez

Dan Ramirez is pursuing a Ph.D. in religion at Duke University. He belongs to the Apostolica Iglesia in East Palo Alto, Calif.

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