Dr. Estrelda Y. Alexander grew up in the Pentecostal movement, but didn’t know much about the black roots of that movement until she was a seminary student. In her groundbreaking new book, Black Fire: 100 Years of African American Pentecostalism, the Regent University visiting professor traces those roots back to the Azusa Street Revival and beyond. Alexander was so influenced by what she learned that she’s spearheading the launch of William Seymour College in Washington, D.C., to continue the progressive Pentecostal legacy of one of the movement’s most important founders. Our interview with Alexander has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: I was introduced to Rev. William Seymour through your book. What was his significance in Pentecostal history and why was it ignored for so long?
ESTRELDA Y. ALEXANDER: I grew up Pentecostal but don’t remember hearing about Seymour until I went to seminary. In my church history class, as they began to talk about the history of Pentecostalism, they mentioned this person who led this major revival, and I’m sitting in class going, “I’ve never heard of him.” I would say part of it was the broad definition of Pentecostalism, which is this emphasis on speaking in tongues, and that wasn’t Seymour’s emphasis. So, even though he’s at the forefront of this revival, he’s out of step with a lot of the people who are around him. Then again, he’s black in a culture that was racist. For him to be the leader would have been problematic, and so he gets overshadowed. I think his demeanor was rather humble, so he gets overshadowed by a lot of more forceful personalities. He doesn’t try to make a name for himself and so no name is made for him. He gets shuffled off to the back of the story for 70 years, then there’s this push to reclaim him with the Civil Rights Movement. As African American scholars start to write, he’s part of the uncovering of the story of early black history in the country.
What was his role specifically in the Azusa Street Revival?
He was the pastor of the church where the revival was held, so these were his people and he stood at the forefront of that congregation. The revival unfolds under his leadership.
The revival initially began with breaking barriers of race, class, and gender, but quickly reverted to societal norms. Why?
They began as this multi-racial congregation, though I think it still was largely black. Certainly there were people there of every race and from all over the world, and women had prominent roles. That was unheard of in the early twentieth century. They were derided not only for their racial mixing, but also for the fact that women did play prominent roles. But within 10 years, much of that had been erased. As the denominations started to form, which they did within 10 years of the revival, they started to form along racial lines. Sociologist Max Weber talks about the routinizing of charisma, that all new religious movements start with this freedom and openness to new ways of being, but as movements crystallize, they begin to form the customary patterns of other religious movements. You see that happen over and over again. That’s not just Azusa Street; that’s a process that is pretty well documented.
Is there still more racial integration in Pentecostal churches than in the wider of body of churches?
There has been an attempt to recapture the racial openness with certain movements. There’s what we call the Memphis Miracle, an episode where the divided denominations came together and consciously made an effort to tear down some of those barriers. It’s been more or less successful. There’s still quite a bit of division. It’s not on paper. On paper, there’s this idea that we’ve all come together, but the practicality of it doesn’t always get worked out.
Some of the division was about doctrine, in particular in regard to the nature of the Trinity. Was that interconnected with the racial issues, or are those two separate things?
They’re not interconnected. There are certainly some racial overtones in the discussion, but that doctrine gets permeated throughout black and white Pentecostal bodies. One of the interesting things, though, is that one of the longest-running experiments in racial unity was within the Oneness movement, which reformulated the doctrine of the Godhead. The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World has tried very hard to remain inter-racial, and adopted specific steps making sure that when there was elections that the leadership reflected both races. If, for instance, the top person elected was white, then the second person in place would be black. It would go back and forth. It’s now predominantly a black denomination, though.
Does Pentecostal theology make it more hospitable to alternative views of the Trinity?
Oh no. In Pentecostalism there is a major divide over the nature of the Godhead, and so the break over that issue wasn’t hospitable. I was a member of a Oneness denomination for a while, but I’m a theologian, so I’ve come to a more nuanced understanding of the Godhead. But in conversations with others, the language that gets used when they talk about each other’s camps is very strong. They are quick to call each other heretics. Among scholars, we tend to be more accepting of other ways of seeing things, but within the local churches, especially among pastors, that is a real intense issue.
In the book, you say Rev. T.D. Jakes views the Godhead as “manifestations” of three personalities and that he successfully straddles theological fences. How has he been able to do that?
For a lot of the people in the pews, what they see is Jakes’ success, so they don’t even pay attention to or understand that there is a difference. You’ll see people who, if they understood what Jakes was saying, they would not accept it. I’m not saying what Jakes is saying is wrong. I think the Godhead is a mystery and anybody that says they can explain it is not telling the truth.
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A delegation of prominent evangelical leaders traveled to Alabama this week to oppose the state’s new immigration law, HB 56. The group spent a day at a Birmingham church, where they talked to educators, students, health care providers, pastors, and families impacted by the law, they told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
Where Are White Evangelicals Now?
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, described HB 56 as an “anti-American,” “anti-Christian,” “anti-family” “violation of basic civil rights.” He said it is instilling fear, not only in undocumented immigrants, but in those who are in the United States legally.
I asked Rodriguez if there is more or less white evangelical support for comprehensive immigration reform now than there was when I interviewed him about the issue for Christianity Today in 2006.
“We have more white evangelicals supportive than in 2006 for sure, both in its leadership and from people in the pews, but I cannot come to the considered conclusion that we have overwhelming or even majority support in the evangelical community for a comprehensive solution,” said Rodriguez. “We do not have enough support to push back the Alabama law.”
Rodriguez described Alabama as a strongly evangelical state in the heart of the Bible belt and said that if Christians had put their faith before their American citizenship, the law would never have passed.
“It was Christian apathy in Alabama—that’s the best case scenario—if not Christian endorsement of the Alabama law that has resulted in our current malaise,” said Rodriguez.
Does Rodriguez Regret African American Comparison?
In light of UrbanFaith reader criticism of Rodriguez’s statement to CNN comparing the plight of Hispanics and undocumented immigrants to that of African Americans, I asked if the comparison diminished the long history of African American oppression in this country.
“No, as a matter of fact, I stand by my comments one hundred percent,” said Rodriguez.
“I can tell you that the vast majority of African Americans understand that what’s taking place here is a lot more than just illegal immigration. …The things that we’re seeing in Alabama and Arizona, these manifestations, they’re not addressing the elephant in the room. They’re trying to go around it, and that is the Latinization of America. The 21st century is an immigrant civil rights issue, a Latino civil rights issue because the vast majority of immigrants are Latino. This has to do with pressing one for English and pressing two for Spanish. Let’s not be naive. This is not just about illegal immigration,” Rodriguez explained.
Earlier on the call, Rodriguez had said his organization is launching a campaign to encourage Hispanic leaders and pastors move to Alabama in order to test whether or not the intention of the law is to “purge” Alabama of “any ethnicity group that does not reflect the majority composition of the state.”
Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he told me “initiatives, campaigns, billboards, conference calls” won’t succeed. “We need a movement that will accomplish comprehensive immigration reform,” Rodriguez concluded.
Is the Moral Obligation Greater?
Dr. Carlos Campo, president of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, also weighed in on the Civil Rights movement comparison.
“This movement is not about a people that are protected, at least in language, by the laws of the United States as fully, clearly as African Americans were, at least in the letter of the law,” said Campo. “That’s one of the reasons there’s an even greater obligation in terms of a moral response here, is these are the least and the last in our community. These are the very ones to whom we believe our God would call us to because they don’t have equal protection under the law.”
Campo doesn’t believe Alabamans fully understood the implications of the law, he said.
“I think there were certain leaders who did understand, but I believe there are a number of people in the Alabama faith community, as they see the implementation of this law, are appalled by what has been passed. And I think it is time for folks in the church not to remain silent any longer and to speak up on behalf of those who cannot or are too fearful to do so,” said Campo.
Is HB 56 Racial Profiling at Its Worst?
Also on the call was Rev. Daniel DeLeon, Senior Pastor of Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, California, and chairman of the National Hispanic Pentacostal Congress.
DeLeon was motivated to go to Alabama after he heard politicians say the law is accomplishing what they wanted it to accomplish. This represents “racial profiling at its worst,” he said. It bothered him too, as an American citizen, to see that “human rights have gone out the window,” he said.
Rev. Jim Tolle, senior pastor of Church on the Way in Los Angeles, California, described himself as a Republican evangelical, and said he believes “subconscious racism” was at play in the passage of HB56. He called attention to the fact that all Americans other than “first nations people” have immigrant histories. “Everybody arrived without permission,” said Tolle.
Both Tolle and DeLeon talked about the immigration struggles of longtime members of their Calfiornia churches. Tolle said a 27 year member had been deported “overnight” and DeLeon said a leader in his church had been trying unsuccessfully for years to legalize his immigration status. Both of these men have children who were born in the United States, the pastors said.
Do the Players Matter?
Robert Gittelson, co-founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, said nothing that undocumented immigrants face in California compares to what they are facing in Alabama and Arizona. He noted that Arizona senators John McCain and Jon Kyl were key proponents of the failed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 and a key “obstructionist” was Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions is still a leading opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, he said.
What do you think?
Is Rev. Rodriguez’s response to reader criticism of his African American / undocumented immigrant comparison adequate?
The term “urban” once described people, places, and things related to the city. Then it became code for anything related to modern “black” culture. Now, according to Regent University religion scholar Antipas Harris, the word needs to be fine-tuned once again.
What is urban? Is it a category of music heard on the radio? Is it a lifestyle or category of clothing? Or is it simply a codeword for black people? Antipas Harris has been working this question out since he was a child growing up in Georgia. He began playing piano at age 2 and knew he was going to preach and teach by age 7. He’s currently best known as a musician and songwriter with the urban soul group A7, which he formed with his five brothers. The group blends R&B and gospel to deliver inspiring songs. But as a professor of practical ministry at the Regent University School of Divinity, with degrees from Emory, Boston University, LaGrange College, and Yale Divinity School, Harris has focused his attention on the changing definition of urban and its implications for the church.
This year Regent announced Harris would lead its Divinity’s School’s new Youth and Urban Renewal Center, which will provide opportunities for students, scholars, and ministers to learn and collaborate. UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist met with Harris at his Virginia Beach office to discuss the Center and Harris’s passion for “urban” ministry.
URBANFAITH: When did you begin to focus on being an educator?
ANTIPAS HARRIS: I’ve been knowing since I was very young that I was called to teach, but I was also on the music scene. I was a choir director and music director for my dad’s church. By the time I was 15, I was preaching. I had spent a lot of time working with youth, so that was a focus. By the time I began my graduate work, I knew I was going to do it in theology rather than music. But I didn’t know for sure if it would be biblical studies or theology.
How did urban ministry become a focus?
While I was at the Candler School of Theology at Emory, I had the opportunity to experience contextual education — a required practical course. I chose to do it at a random place, Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta. I got there and loved it. I would say that was the beginning of my urban ministry interests. I saw it not as a shift, but an expansion of my theological interests.
What did you discover at the prison?
I grew up with a “You live by the sword, you die by the sword” mindset. I had a very strict idea about people in prison, but when I went there I said, “Wow, God is in prison because there are a lot of people who don’t belong there who are suffering.” It changed my world view. I went from being pro-capital punishment to anti-capital punishment. Even if the principle is sound, the practice is corrupted. The justice system becomes a mechanism of injustice among the powerless.
I observed that some of the women in prison had been victims of abuse. Some of them landed in prison as they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. There were even women there since age 16 who had been there all of their adult lives. Behind prison bars were people with situations that were way more complex than my conservative Pentecostal mindset was prepared to consider with compassion at the time.
So how did this change your direction?
Through prayer and study, I came to terms with my own theological limitations. Influenced by Liberation Theologians and Mujerista Theologians such as James Cone and Ada Maria Issasi-Diaz, I have come to terms with the fact that God works through the body of Christ. Our purpose is to participate in God’s suffering by helping to alleviate the problems of people. I discovered a whole new paradigm of church. It’s not some social club that we join or some building. I am convinced that the church that Jesus founded is the living organism of Christ that has the responsibility to continue the work of Christ in the world. The institutional churches are challenged to conform to the primary image of the body of Christ — an organism and not organization.
How will Regent’s Youth and Urban Renewal Center address this?
The center I’m developing brings together the church in the urban communities. What is the responsibility of the church in light of the depravation of urban communities? It ranges from issues of immigration like in Arizona, to poverty, to sexual crimes like pedophilia, to sex trafficking, to gangs and violence — just to name a few. What about the issue of health care, HIV/AIDS? The Center poses those questions to the church, and attempts to identify the divine responsibility of the church in light of our increasingly urbanized word. We want to prepare present and future pastors to think theologically about the role of the church. Furthermore, we want to promote the value of holistic education — mind, body and spirit — that, I believe, is key to dealing with many of the urban problems. Next February, for example, we’re scheduling the first Urban Family Conference. I’m calling Christian leaders together to think about the problems of the urban family and what churches can do to respond to them.
The word urban has gone from meaning “city,” to “Black,” to anything related to hip-hop culture. You have a new definition?
My new definition of urban springs primarily from the issue of gentrification. The inner-city, or urban, problems were such because originally it was the result of a dense population squeezed together — more concrete than trees, more people than jobs. But the point of gentrification was to reclaim the inner city, but it didn’t do anything about the people who lived there and the problems they faced. Instead, it basically ran them out. Atlanta, New York, LA, Chicago — whatever city it is, the people displaced from those places are now in the suburbs with the same problems.
So then, I proffer a definition of “urban” that refers to a suffering people in and beyond the metropolis, infiltrated and surrounded by violence, pollution, diversity, and a high concentration of poverty and need. This situation-centered definition of urban includes but has mushroomed beyond the inner city. Urban areas now include many areas just outside of the inner city and are quickly advancing to the rural areas as well.
So urban is less about culture and more about a particular socioeconomic condition and its related problems?
There’s an increasing influx of other ethnicities that muddies the idea that urban is African American. What I’m trying to articulate at Regent is that this is not a Black studies program or Hispanic studies program, but we cannot ignore the fact that the folks who primarily are the victims of urbanization are blacks and Latinos.
What does this mean for black churches in cities?
We need an urban church that both addresses issues that are lingering with African Americans, but includes other groups, like Hispanics, that are now being racially profiled. In the same way that the black church responded to racism in the South, with boycotts and advocating for people to vote, now the problem is broader. The paradigm has shifted a bit. It still includes issues of particular concern to African Americans, but we need to expand that to include the collective urban problems.
What does an effective urban church look like?
Everybody should consider the existential situations that are surrounding their church. For example, in Southern California, the urban church may look different than Bankhead in Atlanta. The churches need to think theologically about the issues that are immediately surrounding them.
How should churches embrace various cultures within their congregations?
The church has the opportunity to re-imagine what worship is like. Traditionally, it’s been so black or white. Music is one of the key expressions to culture. But even in church leadership and leadership style, we have the opportunity to share culturally and glean from the strengths of different cultures. Issues like family bonds. What can blacks learn from the Asian or Native American cultures that we might glean for sacred worship? What can be learned from Hispanics? And I’m not talking about a separate Spanish service, for example, but a multicultural service that incorporates Latino culture.
In my travels, what I’m observing is a black church where there are many Hispanics, but they have to buy into an African American way of doing church. Or, here in Virginia Beach, a church with a white pastor and white leadership but a large number of African American congregants. It looks diverse, but it’s a white church with a lot of black people in it. A truly urban church takes seriously and equalizes all of the cultures that are present. There needs to be more corporate koinonia where people fellowship and learn from each other. Diversify the senior-level leadership. Include more diverse cultural expression in the music. These aren’t the only things we should be doing, but they are key.
Sounds like what hip-hop culture has done, particularly in its music.
All throughout history cultural adaptation has been part of the church. Charles Wesley and Martin Luther, they took songs from the taverns and gave them Christian lyrics. There’s a difference between affirmation and critique. The gospel critiques the materialism and the love of money you see in a lot of rap music, but it also affirms its musical expression. Unfortunately, many in the black church reject hip-hop altogether because of its materialism, while at the same time accepting that materialism, such as what you see glorified in the prosperity gospel. Hip-hop celebrates the body way too much. It does not promote modesty. It promotes exploitation of women. The gospel critiques that, but it affirms the musical expression. That’s why it’s very important to look theologically at culture. Culture doesn’t drive the church, but it does participate in the reality of the church.