A Protest of the Disinherited

Change agents often wish to make the church over in an ideal image, and prematurely herald new Pentecosts. The disappointment can be crushing, as in the case of William Seymour, the African-American progenitor of the 20th-century pentecostal revival, who died of an abandoned and broken heart in 1922.

In its initial charismatic phase, the movement, which flowered in 1906 in the Los Angeles borderlands of geography, race, gender, and class, blurred the strict demarcations of the first three categories--flowing freely back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border; mocking Jim Crow and "washing away" the new century’s "color line"; eschewing Victorian propriety for the ministry and leadership of women, ecstatic worship, and the scandalous multiracial embrace of bodies--and represented a protest of the "disinherited" against the fourth.

The inevitable institutionalization of the movement streamlined the religious anarchy into more recognizable parameters and patterns of the status quo of early and mid-20th-century America. Thus, pentecostalism conformed to the surrounding mores, fell into patterns of racial (and doctrinal) cleavage, and extinguished a prophetic candle against the growing shadows of Jim Crow. Like the historic black churches, African-American and some Latino pentecostals (particularly Apostolics) were left to fend for themselves. In spite of the shortcomings, the revival contributed mightily to the renewal and growth of the church across the globe.

The differences linger; the racial wall is being replaced with the equally formidable barrier of class. Much of white pentecostalism now feels at ease in suburban Zion, and in an upwardly mobile move to the mainstream, it has traded a prophetic heritage for the Constantinian porridge of civil religion. Thus the irony that while one of the chief promoters of California’s Proposition 187 was an ordained Assemblies of God minister, some of its vulnerable targets were seeking refuge across town in an Asambleas de Dios congregation.

NINE YEARS FROM the Azusa centennial, the wind is blowing again. It was felt most recently in Memphis, Tennessee, where denominational strongholds momentarily melted in a move of the Spirit that had black and white leaders spontaneously washing one another’s feet in repentance.

But there are hearers and doers of the Word. The footwashing that follows the "Memphis Miracle" must now be in the spirit of humility and service. For every effusive cross-cultural hug at a Promise Keeper’s rally, I wonder if there will follow an embrace back home for the "illegal alien," the angry gang member, the AFDC child, the AIDS activist-- all villains in the script of Religious Right strategists.

Jim Wallis is right in prescribing water from our own wells as the antidote for division. At Jacob’s well we will hear the evangel about worshiping God in spirit and in truth anew. Pentecostals need only to return to Azusa’s upper room to rediscover a prophetic heritage of Spirit baptism that washes away all pride and prejudice and privilege; where the converted (formerly an A.M.E. church) livery stable’s "rafters were placed so low" that one had to stoop in humility to get inside; where the pastor hid his head in prayer in the makeshift pulpit; where the Spirit baptism and healing ministry of an "Indian from central Mexico" was proof of God’s sovereign work transcending humanmade borders and ecclesiastical turfs; and where all colors served one another.

On May 17, 1997, choirs and preachers from all over Los Angeles will gather at 216 North Bonnie Brae Street to preach and sing from the same front porch where Seymour began preaching to gathering crowds in that African-American neighborhood on April 9, 1906. Decades later, the mid-Wilshire area has undergone yet another shift from predominantly Korean to Central American. This is urban America, after all.

Through it all, the African-American custodians of the humble bungalow, which houses a Filipino congregation and is four doors down from a Latino Apostolic mission, have waited patiently for the church to return. "Lord, send the rain."

DANIEL RAMIREZ, formerly on staff at Stanford University, is a member of the Apostolic Assembly Church in East Palo Alto, California, active in community economic development projects and Latino youth education, and studying for a doctorate in religious studies, focusing on Latino Pentecostal history.

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