2016-06-30
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c. 2000 Religion News Service

BALTIMORE -- Robert McGoings admits he's a pack rat, but at age 83 he's proud that his habit has proven beneficial for scholars of Pentecostalism.

The retired railroad worker was honored during the recent annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies in Kirkland, Wash.

Little did he know when he started collecting materials seven decades ago that his Sunday bulletins, convention programs and songbooks would help scholars tracing the history of the Pentecostal faith of African-Americans.

"At that time, Pentecostalism wasn't fully accepted," he recalled. "Some people called it a cult."

Pentecostalism, a religious movement stressing direct inspiration by the Holy Spirit and often associated with such "gifts" of the Spirit as healing and speaking in tongues, now has gained wider acceptance.

At the society's 29th annual meeting, McGoings was presented with a bound set of papers that were read during the conference, an honor bestowed on those who have made significant contributions to members of the organization.

"He's not a member of our society but has been a very significant influence on a number of the young African-American scholars in the society," said Bill Faupel, executive secretary of the group. "It's being presented in recognition of his mentoring these scholars."

McGoings, who studied history for two years at what was then Baltimore's Morgan State College but never earned a degree himself, said he's "excited" about being recognized by the scholarly group.

As a regular attender of an annual meeting of Pentecostal "old-timers" in New York, he realizes his knowledge and memories are hard to come by.

"There's just a few of us left who can recall much of the history without getting it mixed up," said McGoings, a member of First United Church of Jesus Christ (Apostolic) in Baltimore since 1968. "And so far I'm satisfied that I can still tell some history."

In recent decades, he's helped researchers track the educational backgrounds and theological beliefs of Pentecostal leaders as well as the growth of particular congregations.

Growing up in Baltimore, McGoings was a member of First Apostolic Faith Baptist Church, which was part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World organization.

"As a child, quite a number of the preachers coming through to visit my church would come to my house ... for dinner or even to stay," he said. "In those days, the African-Americans could not stay in a hotel."

McGoings' collection began mostly because he was impressed with the persuasive preaching of Bishop R.C. Lawson, the founder of the Pentecostal organization called Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith.

"I just liked his mannerism and his ability and style of delivery, even though I was only eight years old," McGoings recalled of the first time he heard Lawson preach at his church in 1925. "I fell in love with him. ... I was taken. I was a follower of him until he passed and I'm called a Lawsonite."

McGoings, a distinguished gentleman who jumps up to refer to nearby pamphlets and booklets to answer questions more specifically, still recalls the past and current street addresses of Pentecostal churches where the bishop preached.

After hearing Lawson again in 1932, McGoings started to keep newspaper articles and programs related to the church official and eventually expanded his clippings to other leaders of the Oneness branch of Pentecostals.

Members of the Oneness division believe there is one person in the Godhead -- rather than the Trinity -- and baptize converts in the name of Jesus rather than in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

McGoings explained the Oneness tradition on baptism, which occurs when possible in the same service where converts respond to a preacher's altar call.

"You get baptized then and there," he said. "You don't get a chance to think about it."

By the 1940s, McGoings and his late wife, Florence, traveled to New York regularly to hear Lawson preach, attending the bishop's Refuge Temple more than their Baltimore church. McGoings enjoyed the anthems and hymns at the "conventional church service," a departure from the traditional hand-clapping, foot-stomping worship of other Pentecostal congregations.

"Lawson and I became personal friends and that added more to it," he said of his collection.

Sherry DuPree, a Gainesville, Fla., author who has researched African-American Pentecostal groups, said she met McGoings in 1982 through contacts at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington.

"He was just an eye-opener for Oneness groups," said DuPree.

She said McGoings took her personally to interview people she included in her "Biographical Dictionary of African American Holiness Pentecostals: 1880-1990."

"He spent many hours with me in the '80s, carrying me places and introducing me to folk that I could interview," recalled DuPree.

Not only did he keep bulletins and pictures and Sunday school booklets, but McGoings also retained invitations and postcards he received.

"He would go to banquets and save all of his little stubs," said DuPree.

A search through McGoings' materials "helped tremendously" when DuPree was trying to trace the life of Lawson, who introduced choirs and neckties as worship and fashion statements among Oneness Pentecostals before his death in 1961.

"We could piece when Lawson traveled overseas because he would get a Christmas card from him," said DuPree. "That's really something we hadn't been able to do."

DuPree's collection on African-American Pentecostals at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York was boosted by contributions from McGoings, culled from what she said was a "basement-full" of materials. She said other authors have interviewed McGoings on black Pentecostalism and at least eight doctoral dissertations of Howard students credit him.

McGoings said some of the church directories he collected listed members and pastors, helping researchers track the starts and splits of Pentecostal groups.

"That would tell them who was with so-and-so," he said. "The preachers have gone from organization to organization."

McGoings, who moved into a senior-citizen housing complex last fall, has given away much of his collection now, but retains a few mementos, including booklets detailing Lawson's life. A former waiter-in-charge and steward for Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Amtrak, he also collected schedules, pens and pencils from a variety of railways before he retired in 1980.

Diana Lachatanere, curator of the Schomburg Center's manuscripts, archives and rare books division, said collectors like McGoings can make a great contribution, especially concerning ephemeral materials. Often such items get tossed out by children who don't know how precious they were to the elders that preceded them or to the scholars who live after them, she said.

"It is invaluable because that might be the only piece of this pamphlet or this flier or this sermon that has lasted," said Lachatanere.

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