Acknowledging that their repentance came 30 years too late, leaders of 21 white Pentecostal groups gathered in Memphis to close the racial rift with their African-American brethren.
After three days of meetings in October, African Americans and whites were embracing one another, washing each other's feet, and joining forces in a new ministerial organization sans color barrier.
"Racism in the Pentecostal-charismatic community must be eradicated," B. E. Underwood, head of the Pentecostal Holiness denomination, declared as the conference opened. "What a difference it would have made during the civil rights movement in America if all the children of the Pentecostal revival had stood together," Underwood said.
Throughout the meetings, sponsored by the 46-year-old Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (PFNA), white leaders expressed regrets that their history has been tainted by openly racist attitudes. One historian, Cecil Robeck of Fuller Theological Seminary, presented a 71-page paper describing, among other prejudices, how an Assemblies of God presbyter justified segregation in the South by teaching that God intended the races to live separately. The "father of American Pentecostalism," Charles Parham, continued to endorse the Ku Klux Klan as late as 1927, Robeck said.
Breaking with the past: PFNA board members demonstrated their change of heart and mind by dissolving their organization. Then they formed a new interracial group, the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America, or PCCNA. Its founders include top bishops of the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination in the United States, the 5 million-member Church of God in Christ (COGIC), based in Memphis.
COGIC Bishop Ithiel Clemmons of Brooklyn, New York, was elected the group's first chairperson. He is the first African American to hold such a high-profile leadership role among white Pentecostals since COGIC founder C. H. Mason visited the 1906 Azusa Street Revival and began ordaining white preachers.
Azusa Street was a popular topic during the Memphis meeting, partly because both African-American and white Pentecostals trace their roots to the unusual movement that broke out in African-American pastor William Joseph Seymour's modest mission church in Los Angeles. Azusa is viewed as a birthplace of modern Pentecostalism, which today represents 450 million adherents.
But Azusa also reminds Pentecostals in the United States of their racist past. Seymour's church services were integrated in the early days, and racial reconciliation was a common theme in his emotion-charged sermons. But as the Pentecostal movement grew, it divided along racial lines.
"The manifestation of racial reconciliation survived at Azusa Street for about three years - from 1906 to 1909," Underwood said. "But [participants] succumbed to the pressures of a racist culture, rather than surrender to the gracious work of the Holy Spirit."
HISTORICAL TURNING POINT
Many church leaders view the Memphis meeting as a turning point in their history. "What we are seeing here is a reinvigorated Pentecostal movement," Regent University dean Vinson Synan said. "I believe revival will break out because the Lord blesses unity."
"The meeting was a sincere attempt by both whites and blacks to have true racial reconciliation," said Paul Cedar, president of the mainstream Evangelical Free Church of America. "God is really calling us to deal with racism."
Charles Blake, a COGIC bishop from Los Angeles, called the meeting "a giant step in the eradication of racism among Pentecostals." But Blake was disappointed that it has taken so long to tear down the walls that divide them. He said, "Reconciliation should have started with us Pentecostals."
Not all the walls have been toppled yet. COGIC's presiding bishop, L. H. Ford, did not attend the Memphis meeting. Synan said Ford did not respond to three invitations to attend, and he never recommended that COGIC ministers join the new fellowship.
Clemmons says some African Americans believe whites who invade their territory are bent on taking over. "When whites draw near blacks there is often fear," Clemmons explained. "There is a fear of a loss of autonomy. Bishop Ford doesn't want anything to impede our denominational agenda."
But Ford's absence did not prevent other COGIC ministers from joining in the celebration. Blake, in fact, made a dramatic, spontaneous statement on the last day of the convention when he washed the feet of Thomas Trask, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. At the same time, a white pastor from Florida washed Clemmons's feet, and ministers throughout the auditorium fell to their knees and wept while others voiced prayers of repentance.
Soon after, participants began to talk about "the miracle of Memphis." Later that day, Foursquare pastor Jack Hayford urged the audience to spread the message of reconciliation back home. "We are dealing with blind spots that only God can help us to see," Hayford said.
Commenting on the event, church historian Mark Noll of Wheaton (Ill.) College, said, "Black and white divisions are probably the deepest divisions in American religious life. Anything that tries to break through that will be meaningful."
PFNA operated on a small budget and relied on voluntary contributions from member organizations to host an annual conference. PCCNA will operate much the same way, with Clemmons handling PCCNA business from his Brooklyn office.
PCCNA leaders hope to encourage more interracial fellowship and cooperation on the local level. They already are working to form local PCCNA chapters in larger cities. Synan says they also plan to host interdenominational crusades in larger cities as pastors learn to trust each other.
PCCNA members do not expect their churches to become integrated overnight, and it remains to be seen how enthusiastic COGIC and other African-American groups will be about joining the new fellowship. But organizers are encouraging pastors to start the healing process on the local level by crossing racial lines.
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