…The church is a place where women and children speak and are loved and valued, where young people are given a chance to lead, and where people from across unimaginable divides come together in unconditional love. And that is basically my definition–and Harvey Cox‘s definition–of true Pentecostalism.
Liberian, Kenyan, and Rwandan Pentecostalism
I had spent two weeks with the children and staff at Phebe Grey, a Church of God orphanage in Paynesville, Liberia, and had also worshipped with people in a tribal village of thatched huts straight out of National Geographic. Liberia is unspeakably poor after 16 years of civil war and the scourge of Ebola, and with 85% unemployment, there is little hope for a better future here on earth. So church is the place where these committed Pentecostals recognize their membership in a royal priesthood and understand that their father in heaven “owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” In church, they are not poor and desperate. They are jubilant with their assurance of Jesus’ imminent return, and their bliss is palpable. It’s in their music, in their dancing, and in the carefree abandon of their worship.
Then I spent two weeks with the students at Discipleship College in Eldoret, Kenya, engaging in Bible study with a group of South Sudanese refugees, and worshipping in a multi-national church near the campus. South Sudan is the poorest country on earth, and after 22 years of civil war, it seceded from Sudan. Six years into nationhood, an armed conflict broke out between the President and Vice President, and a whole new civil war began. The South Sudanese I met with had known six years of peace in their lifetime, and all of them had grown up in refugee camps and were once again refugees. During church on Sunday, they asked the Kenyan pastor if they could sing something in Arabic, and the pastor agreed. They sang with such joy and such spiritual freedom that the whole congregation was on their feet praising and worshipping God despite the fact that not one of them understood a word of Arabic. It was the kind of Pentecostal experience that goes directly to the heart, the kind that needs no intelligible words.
On my last Sunday, I was in Rwanda worshipping with survivors of the bloodiest genocide in modern history. When I said that, “people from across unimaginable divides come together in unconditional love,” this is the kind of unimaginable divide I’m talking about. People in the church in Rwanda were standing side by side with tribes from both sides of the genocide. The youth choir was a beautiful and lively group of mostly young women who worshipped with enthusiasm and danced with grace. Their boundless joy was deeply moving, and they seemed blessed beyond words. The pastor later told me that three of the young women who led in the beautiful singing were infected with HIV/ AIDS because their mother had been raped during the genocide and had passed the disease on to her daughters. People who have unbearable sorrow in this life find “primal hope” in the message of Pentecostalism.
Also at the church in Rwanda, a lively group of older women came to the front and gave animated testimonies, their eyes dancing, and their mutual affection shining through their words. Women generally have low status in Africa, but in the Pentecostal churches they are valuable and they are encouraged to speak; they have a voice. These were widows of the genocide who find their hope in the promises of God.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been to a non-Pentecostal church in Africa, and it may be that all churches have this same kind of energy, optimism, ecstatic physicality, reconciliation, and an other worldly emphasis on the coming of Christ. Nevertheless, something in those African services among the poor and marginal reminded me in a deep and almost inexplicable way of the Pentecostalism of my childhood. There was a profound appeal to something pre-rational that was deeply familiar. The abandonment of the cares of this world in the hopes of the world to come, the uncontrived and deeply affecting worship, and the equality of believers before God were the same as in my small home congregation.
American Pentecostalism’s Origin
The church I grew up in was filled with the kinds of misfits and outliers that Cox describes as central to the movement in the earliest days. The core of our church was a contingency of strong women in the true pietist mode, and at the center of that group was my grandmother. Our church began as a mission to the prostitutes on Brewery Gulch in Bisbee, Arizona, and even though the clientele had upgraded by the time I came along two generations later, there was always a marginal group of mostly men who were in and out of the altar and the local jail with a predictable rhythm. They were always welcome because of the belief that God could and would change them. No one was prosperous enough to be satisfied with the glories of this life, and the congregation had an other worldly orientation. All our songs were about the streets of gold and the glories of heaven. We were taught to shun the “things of this world,” and the women in my church were willing and eager to confront me on any sign of my worldliness.
This may all seem like an avoidance of the subject at hand, but these sketches are intended to show you what I think Pentecostalism was in its American origins and what it still is in its wider world context: the joyous religion of the poor and oppressed which rejects this present world and longs for the world to come, which expects the miraculous interjection of the hand of God in every situation, which equalizes the position of men, women, and children of all races and classes, and which abandons the rational in favor of worship that is blissful, joyous and transcendent.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.