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Era of Racial Separation Ending for Pentecostals : Religion: White, black denominations will form coalition. Move hailed as milestone for fast-growing sect.

October 17, 1994|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

In a historic milestone in American Pentecostalism, an association of predominantly white Pentecostal denominations is poised to disband this week and erect a new multiethnic organization in its place.

The new body, still to be named, would include the nation's leading African American Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God in Christ, as well as the Assemblies of God, the nation's largest predominantly white Pentecostal denomination. Between them, the two groups account for about 10 million of the estimated 15 million Pentecostals in the United States.

Even Pentecostals admit that the dismantling of the all-white 46-year-old Pentecostal Fellowship of North America is painfully late, coming as it does 30 years after the tumultuous civil rights movement. However, they and outside observers call it the single most important development in the 88-year history of Pentecostal Christianity in the United States.

"It's dramatic. It's epochal," said Harvard University religion professor Harvey Cox, whose new book, "Fire From Heaven," traces the rise of Pentecostal spirituality.

Bishop Charles E. Blake of the West Angelus Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles said, "I cannot think of any comparable event in the life of the church that this would compare to."

Cox said the gathering, which opens in Memphis today, holds out the promise that a new generation of Pentecostals may now be willing to take their place in mainstream society and speak out on issues of pressing national importance, including poverty, racism and injustice.

"(The) Memphis (conference) represents one kind of answer and (religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's) Christian Coalition represents another in a very different direction," Cox said. The coalition has maintained a high profile of political activism in conservative causes, from opposing gays in the military to arguing against President Clinton's health care proposal. The coalition has also fielded candidates for public office and Republican party posts at the county, state and national level.

Pentecostalism is the fastest growing Christian sect in the world, with 410 million members, according to Cox. In the United States, they outnumber all but Southern Baptists, United Methodists and Roman Catholics. By the year 2010, Cox estimates, there will be more Pentecostals than all other non-Catholic Christians together.

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Pentecostals share with other Christians a belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God, in Jesus as son of God and Savior, and the need for evangelism. What sets them apart is their ecstatic worship, which can lead to glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues." Such utterances are seen as evidence that an individual has been filled with the Holy Spirit.

Cox cautioned that interracial cooperation among Pentecostals on the denominational level may take time to filter down to local congregations where there is great autonomy. Moreover, there are thousands of independent Pentecostal churches that are unaffiliated with any denomination. They will also be asked to join the new association.

"The fact is, most congregations will remain black or white or Latin for a while, maybe for a long time. But you've got to start somewhere," said Cox. "I don't think this should be minimized. It is a very important step."

Indeed, in the months before this week's meeting, Pentecostal leaders said they were already seeing the first fruits of what they are calling a reconciliation strategy for 21st Century ministry. In areas such as Atlanta and Memphis, there are joint worship services monthly between white and African American Pentecostals.

New efforts are being made for annual joint worship and praise services on Pentecost Sunday, a major observance throughout Christianity when, according to the New Testament book of Acts, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus' apostles following his Crucifixion and Resurrection.

The term Pentecost, which means fifty , is a Greek name originally applied to the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which came 50 days after Passover. According to Christian teaching, Jesus' followers received the baptism of the Holy Spirit on this day and the earthly church was born.

The dramatic, if belated, move toward racial reconciliation harks back to the beginnings of Pentecostal expansion in America after what is known as the Azusa Street revival.

It was in Los Angeles in 1906 that William J. Seymour, a fiery African American preacher, began preaching to both African Americans and whites. His top assistant was a white woman.

From their small mission on Azusa Street in what is now the Little Tokyo district came reports of speaking in tongues, healings and other miracles. But the biggest miracle of all may have been the claim that the blood of Jesus had washed away the color line.

"One token of the Lord's coming is that He is melting all races and nations together, and they are filled with the power and glory of God," a Seymour leaflet proclaimed in 1906.

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