Pentecostal Baptist fellowship conference at Convention Center

Decade-old movement grows in black churches, 20,000 expected to attend

July 10, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Up to 20,000 African-American Christians will gather today in Baltimore for three days of prayer, preaching and praise, all part of a decade-old movement that advocates a controversial fusion of the spirit-filled worship of Pentecostalism with Baptist tradition.

The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International, which comprises 1,500 congregations, "has been designed to bridge the gap," said Bishop Paul S. Morton Sr., who founded the movement in 1992. Its 9th annual conference, the first on the East Coast, will convene at the Baltimore Convention Center.

"There have been too many walls up, even in the body of Christ," said Morton, 51, a preacher whose musical cadence, shaved head and neatly trimmed goatee are familiar to many who watch his national weekly television broadcast. "I believe that this movement has been assigned to tear those walls down."

The walls were certainly shaking Sunday morning at First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church in West Baltimore, where the congregation demonstrated what the movement is all about. Organ, piano, drums and bass drove the gospel beat as a soloist led the choir and congregation in singing, "He is marvelous!" over and over in a musical mantra.

Many black churches over the past two decades have adopted the spirited worship that has been called neo-Pentecostalism.

But mainstream Baptists have been skeptical of Pentecostalism, in which worshippers "speak in tongues" and practice spiritual and physical healing. Baptist theology holds that such spiritual gifts ceased in the first century of Christianity.

Morton, who was born in Canada, became pastor of St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in New Orleans in 1975. By 1990, the congregation began moving in a more Pentecostal direction.

He started holding annual conferences in the Louisiana Superdome that were part old-time revivals and part marketing tool, drawing 25,000 people in its first year in 1994 and 50,000 the next. One of those he attracted in 1994 was the Rev. Oscar E. Brown of Baltimore.

"As we entered into the Superdome, you could hear the people just worshipping, praising God. It was mind-blowing," Brown said. The next year, he joined the fellowship, was named a bishop and overseer of Maryland, which now has 34 churches.

When the Full Gospel Fellowship first formed, Baptist leaders, fearing it would become a breakaway denomination that would draw members from their churches, urged members to choose one or the other.

"Our convention has to take a stand and let our members know without a shadow of a doubt you're either with them, or with the NBC," the Rev. Henry Lyons, the disgraced former president of the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest black Baptist denomination, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1995.

Morton chose to leave.

"They said, `You have to be this or that,'" he said. "I said, `This will be fine for me.'"

The Pentecostalism of the Full Gospel movement is not the only thing that raises Baptist eyebrows. It is led by bishops who wear white collars, fuschia shirts and chains across their chests. The movement has adopted a church hierarchy led by bishops that is foreign to Baptists, who believe no man can mediate between God and believer.

But Morton argues he stands on firm Biblical ground: "Reverend is a man-made name. Bishop is a Biblical name."

The Full Gospel Fellowship has weathered some storms. A financial scheme recommended by Morton during the 1997 conference that turned out to be a scam contributed to his mental breakdown the next year. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with clinical depression caused by bipolar disorder. Morton rejected the medications prescribed by doctors, instead believing that he was healed through prayer and "spiritual warfare" with demonic forces.

"Jesus balanced me through spiritual warfare, not medicine," he wrote in his 1999 book, Why Kingdoms Fall.

His experience convinced him of the importance of his mission.

"I believe we have to maximize our spiritual gifts, because the devil is rising more and more now," Morton said. "How are you going to defeat him if you're fighting against a spiritual being and you don't have spiritual power?"

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