Often this sort of controversy is the catalyst for transformation. I remain hopeful that when the dust settles, we will recognize an ongoing religious revolution: the breaking down of racial barriers among Christians.
Pentecostalism was one of the early racial pioneers, though for several decades, racism stopped interracial worship in Pentecostal gatherings. However, this is changing today, and it is worth noting.
It all began during a 1901 New Year's Eve prayer vigil in the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, where Charles Fox Parham and several of his Bible students documented a supernatural happening. A woman named Agnes Ozman began to speak in "tongues" (formerly called "glossolalia"). This event sparked a movement that two years later spread to another school begun by Parham, this one in Houston, where a young black evangelist named William J. Seymour became thirsty for the spirit of God. In fact, even when he was asked to sit outside and listen through a cracked door, he did so in complete humility.
Seymour soon took that candle of enlightenment to spread revival in a small home prayer group. One day, in the midst of a 10-day fast, Seymour and the others were dramatically baptized in the Holy Ghost. This great meeting, and its results, soon spread to an abandoned building in Los Angeles at 312 Azusa Street.
The interracial aspects of the "Pentecostalism movement" (as it was later called) were a striking exception to the racism and segregation during those times. The phenomenon of blacks and whites worshipping together under a black pastor seemed incredible to observers. Frank Bartleman, a licensed Baptist minister, captured the ethos of the meeting when he wrote in the Apostolic Faith News in 1906, "the color line was washed away in the blood." Bartleman called Azusa Street the "American Jerusalem" and many of the people who hungered for God's touch went on a trek to the supplanted Holy Land.
One of those people was Charles Fox Parham--but his appearance on the scene began a great divide, a spiritual chasm, which many of God's chosen elect will still not brave to cross. At the Azusa Street Mission, Parham became deeply offended by people openly demonstrating their charismatic gifts. Moreover, Parham was an admirer of the Ku Klux Klan, which objected to racial mixing in church. This admiration was further stirred by his belief in false doctrines, such as the notion that Noah was chosen to survive the flood because of his "pedigree" (Genesis 6:9). The first schism in the Pentecostal Movement began when Parham denounced what he could not practice.
Americans were only one generation removed from slavery. This wave of "Azusa pilgrims" journeyed throughout the nation. In 1907, William H. Durham journeyed to Azusa from Chicago and received the "tongues experience." Upon returning home, he led thousands into the Pentecostal movement, which led to the formation of the Assemblies of God denomination in 1914. Since many white pastors had formerly been a part of Mason's church, this was the beginning of racial separation in the Pentecostal movement.
It seems that many other denominations are also trying to bridge the gap between the races once again. The Christian men's group Promise Keepers, led by Coach Bill McCartney, for example, has promoted as one of its major themes racial reconciliation between men. Partly as a result, this idea has grown dramatically in the last decade. Perhaps this gathering of diverse men can finally be recaptured through the church. After all, Martin Luther King once made this famous observation: "11 o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in this nation's week." Out of the burning crosses of a vain religion is coming a resurgence of fresh faith, ignited by the hope of a country whose religious freedom has epitomized a once popular national theme, "Free at last."
For years, scholars and theologians have scoffed at Pentecostalists; yet, we now see this movement reaching from a quaint service in a church house to a confirmation at the White House. It is interesting to note that it was once the victim of every imaginable insult. The media of the early 20th century ridiculed Pentecostalists for their beliefs and actions. This caused a nationwide onslaught by conservative theologians (white and black), churchgoers and nonbelievers alike, who also ostracized Pentecostalists.
For black Pentecostalists, it was double jeopardy, as they were excluded from white culture because of their race, and then from black culture because of their religion. The insults were at times just as demeaning as their lack of suffrage under segregation.
Just as the first Reformers risked all they had so later generations could enjoy religious freedom, two generations of Pentecostalists paid the price for our freedom to know the Holy Spirit in our churches the way that we do today. They counted allowing the Holy Spirit freedom in the church as more important than any freedom that the world could give them.
From the first day of Pentecost, God, through the Holy Spirit, has proved that He will only dwell with us to the degree that we have unity. Like those who came to the Azusa Street Mission, we must want the Holy Spirit more than we want to hold on to our differences. From the Upper Room in Acts 2 to the Azusa Street Mission to the 21st-century church, we can clearly witness one undeniable reality: The God who was offended by our sin does not seem at all repulsed by the diversity of our skin.
Whether we are Pentecostal, Baptist, or some other strand of faith, we should welcome the stage that has allowed us to dialogue about the "social trinity" of race, religion, and politics. As Marian Wright-Edelman, the famed civil rights lobbyist and founder of the Children's Defense Fund, once said, "What unites us is far greater than what divides us as families and friends and Americans and spiritual sojourners on this Earth." Regardless of what you have been taught or how you have been reared, the only aspect that separates us in God's eyes is not the color of our skin or the way we worship God, but in the choice that we have or have not made to make Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Soon, I hope, we will witness a transformation among Christians who will come to realize that what is different from us need not divide us. My comfort remains that though we live in a constantly changing world, we are all anchored by the faith we have expressed in the immutability of God.