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Pentecostals Praise God in Many Tongues

Believers worldwide gather in L.A. -- singing, dancing and shouting -- to mark the 100th anniversary of the Azusa Street Revival.

April 23, 2006|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Carrying banners and making music, about 3,000 exuberant Christians on Saturday kicked off a weeklong centennial celebration of the birthplace of modern Pentecostalism in Little Tokyo with a "Holy Spirit Procession" through downtown Los Angeles.

Thousands of Christians worldwide are coming to Los Angeles this week to mark the 100th anniversary of what is called the Azusa Street Revival, considered the cradle of the global Pentecostal movement, the fastest growing branch of Christianity, with 500 million adherents.

Saturday's march began at a modest house on Bonnie Brae Street where William J. Seymour, an African American preacher, once held prayer meetings, and ended on Little Tokyo's Azusa Street, where he established a multiracial mission that church historians say grew into the modern Pentecostal movement.

"It's so incredible to see all the nations coming together, not just to celebrate but to ask God for another outpouring of the Holy Spirit," said the Rev. Jonathan Ngai, pastor of Transformations Community Church in Arcadia, which is not affiliated with the Pentecostal movement.

Many in the procession carried flags of various nations and banners referring to Jesus as "King of Kings" and "Prince of Peace."

Some cried out "Praise the Lord!" and "Hallelujah! as they marched and danced down Beverly Boulevard to 1st Street, and then to Noguchi Plaza in front of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, where Seymour's ramshackle church once stood.

There, under a large tent replicating the original size of the old church, event organizers, internationally known pastors, community leaders and invited guests held an opening ceremony and dedicatory prayer.

Then, with the blowing of the shofar -- a ram's horn -- by a contingent of Messianic Jews, the festivities began with hundreds of people spreading out across Noguchi Plaza singing and playing music.

Several thousand people, some with babies in strollers, lingered at the plaza well into midafternoon to worship with songs and dances.

Pentecostals are known for their spontaneous, fervent worship style and praying aloud.

There are many groups within the Pentecostal movement, but what unites them is their belief that the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, witnessing signs and performing miracles are available to them through baptism, as they were to Jesus' apostles.

Sometimes this is called a second blessing, said the Rev. David Scholer, professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained American Baptist minister.

In contrast, mainline Protestants believe that once they are saved, the rest of the Christian life is a process "theologically called sanctification," he added.

Though few outside Pentecostalism know of him, Pastor Seymour, a son of slaves from Louisiana, held round-the-clock religious revivals that drew thousands of people of all races to the Azusa Street Mission.

His ministry began at a prayer meeting on April 9, 1906, at 216 N. Bonnie Brae St., when it was "visited by a move of the Holy Spirit" and people began to speak and sing in tongues, according to the Rev. Cecil M. Robeck Jr., an authority on Pentecostalism and author of "The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement."

Within days, his flock had grown so large that he had to find a bigger place -- an abandoned building at 312 Azusa St. that had once been the home of the congregation that would later become First AME Church, Robeck said.

From 1906 through 1909, the Azusa Street Mission received worldwide attention.

Some at Saturday's events had compelling testimonies of their own.

Steve Hamilton, an electrician from San Bernardino, said he came "to celebrate Jesus for renewing my life and dying on the cross for me."

He said he was abandoned by his mother when he was 10 and lived on the streets, "strung out on drugs and alcohol," until he had a personal encounter with Jesus through the Salvation Army when he was 35.

Seven years later, he is a "happy" man -- clean from drugs and alcohol, has a well-paying job, is married and has a daughter, he said.

Many events are scheduled throughout the week at venues throughout the city. There will be conferences for pastors and women in the ministry, rallies commemorating Seymour, revival services, a special service for Native Americans, and an international youth convocation.

Today, some of the 150 visiting Pentecostal pastors will be preaching in area churches. At 7 p.m. Monday a multiethnic worship service is scheduled at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Information on the centennial events is available at www.azusastreet.com.

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