Azusa Street and the Meaning of Pentecost

17 09 2006

This past April marked the 100 year centennial for the Azuza Street Revival, in Los Angeles. A one-eyed, semi-literate, black man named William Seymour was the acknowledged leader of the strange new movement that was gaining international renown . Seymour was teaching a new doctrine that taught that you must receive the Holy Spirit to be empowered for holiness and witness. The cornerstone of the teaching is that the evidence of receiving the Spirit was speaking in tongues. Seymour himself learned this doctrine by a white man named Charles Parham in Houston, Texas. Seymour wanted to learn this teaching so much that he was willing to hear the racist Parham teach this new doctrine outside of the Jim Crow segregated classroom in the hallway (read Vinson Synan’s “The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United states” for a thorough history). It is even said that when Parham came out to investigate what was happening in L.A. at Seymour’s request that his comment was something like this: “This is nothing but over-emotional niggah-religion”.

Now I am not nay-saying the Pentecostal faith or speaking in tongues. In fact, I speak in tongues myself. I am fine with God giving someone an ecstatic experience in order for their faith to be shored up and strengthened. However, I do think that Seymour and Parham missed out on what Pentecost was really about. The wonder of what happened in Los Angeles one hundred years ago is that there were people all over the world worshipping together: black, white, Asian, Hispanic, male, female, young, old, rich, poor, English speakers, non-English speakers, all in one place and on one accord. This is the heart of the Gospel, reconciliation between God and humankind, and the creation of a new humanity from every ethnic and racial group.

It is a reclamation and redemption to what happened at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 when the nations were scattered because humankind wanted to come together as one independent of God. Now, God was putting together a new people from all the peoples of the earth. And they were speaking in a new language, that God gave them.

I think that it is time for a new Pentecost that is not only focused on speaking in tongues, but in racial reconciliation, justice, and authentic community. Just like the first Pentecost was fundamentally about the formation of Jesus’ church, the third Pentecost must be about developing a witnessing community that is so radically transformed by the Holy Spirit that everyone has to stand up and take notice of what God is doing in the midst.

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