Lifting the curse of Babel

November 14, 1994|By Harvey Cox

Cambridge, Mass. -- WITH SO MUCH bad news about race relations in America these days, it's understandable that a piece of very good news has gone largely unnoticed.

When 25 Pentecostal churches -- some historically white, others traditionally black -- gathered in Memphis, Tenn., late last month and pledged to move toward unity, they bridged more than an ecclesiastical chasm. They crossed the most jagged fissure in our body politic.

One of the groups, the Church of God in Christ, is the largest predominantly African-American Pentecostal denomination. Its members are mostly poor and lower middle-class, from large cities.

Another, the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America, is entirely white, with a constituency in small towns and middle-sized cities.

Sociologists might deem these populations the least likely candidates for a dramatic racial reconciliation. But there was something more than demography at work in Memphis.

The modern Pentecostal movement began in 1906, in a ramshackle black mission church in Los Angeles. It was led by a self-educated minister, William Joseph Seymour, who taught that the descent of the Holy Spirit, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, was happening again.

At that Biblical Pentecost, a heterogeneous assortment of Christ's followers experienced something extraordinary. Although they spoke different languages, somehow they could understand each other. The confounding of the tongues that had occurred with the destruction of the Tower of Babel had been reversed -- God had withdrawn the curse of confusion and was mending hostile tribes into a new humanity.

But Mr. Seymour believed that instead of spreading this good news, those early Christians wrote creeds and built hierarchies that set themselves apart, so God withdrew his blessings for another day. Mr. Seymour and his tiny band believed that the Great Day was at hand, and they greeted it with glad shouts and dancing in the aisles. Many claimed that the Spirit spoke to them in visions and healed diseases.

The exuberance of their worship drew both genuine seekers and cynics to Mr. Seymour's church on Azusa Street. Some came to scoff and stayed to pray, and before long blacks, whites, Mexicans and Asians were praying together in a nation where Jim Crow was on the rise.

Mr. Seymour told his growing congregation that this breaking down of racial divisions was a sure sign that the new Pentecost had begun.

An astonished visitor from the deep South wrote that he had been saved from the sin of prejudice at the mission. "The color line," he wrote, "has been washed away by the blood of Jesus."

But it quickly became evident that racial animosity was harder to scour away than Mr. Seymour thought. Whites chafed under black leadership, and by the 1920s, Pentecostalism was segregated.

Still, over time the movement grew into the largest non-Catholic Christian denomination in the world. After World War II, it raced through the poverty-stricken shantytowns of Latin America, Asia and Africa. But most congregations lost sight of Mr. Seymour's vision of racial togetherness.

In recent years, however, a new generation of black and white Pentecostal leaders has rediscovered the promise of Azusa Street, and last month's meeting saw whites repented for their role in letting the color line creep into the movement.

In Memphis, the churches agreed to set up an alliance open to all Pentecostal congregations. It will have an executive committee made up of six whites and six blacks. In a gesture that might seem ludicrous to the secular mind but which packs a mighty symbolic wallop, black and white Pentecostal leaders embraced, wept and washed each other's feet as a sign of reconciliation.

This meeting did not, of course, abolish America's racial rancor. But remember that it was in Mason Temple, a Pentecostal church in Memphis, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last sermon. It was there that he said, echoing the words of Moses, "I've been to the mountaintop, and I've seen the promised land."

Those who continue to cherish King's vision can be grateful that people who were once dismissed as superstitious zealots, as "holy rollers" who prayed in canvas tents and storefronts, have taken a step that has somehow eluded most academics and politicians. Maybe the Spirit really is descending after all.

Harvey Cox is author of "Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Shaping of Religion in the 21st Century."

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