During my first year as an undergrad, I struggled to find a Christian community where I could fellowship with others. I began to notice that a number of my neighbors attended a predominantly white “nondenominational” mega church. The church site was located in the middle of a predominantly Latin@ neighborhood, and over the years there had been a few conflicts over construction. Yet, virtually all of the membership of the church came from outside of the church’s setting. I didn’t ask questions because I was young, and I wanted to be in with the in-crowd. I thought that just because a church was “nondenominational,” that meant that we could all get along merrily as Christians without “doctrine dividing us.” It wasn’t until one Sunday that the pastor started to preach on cessationism that I got nervous and I stopped going. It turns out that the church had very Reformed theological commitments, and cessationism (the idea that the miracles and healings have stopped after the time of the apostles). I also happened to be at that time part of a small Pentecostal student ministry. For various reasons that fall, I left both settings to “settle” into Baptist life.
In grad school, I worked on an independent study on histories of Persons of Color in evangelicalism. I eventually went on to present a paper at the regional American Academy of Religion about two years ago on the topic. One of the texts that I used for my research was Arlene Sanchez Walsh’s Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society. Sanchez Walsh describes the history of Latin@ Pentecostalism in California and the Southwest and how it was placed within the broader context of Pentecostalism, a subculture of evangelical Christianity.
Pentecostal historians of Mexico and California tend to make the issue about conversions from Catholicism to Pentecostalism. Sanchez Walsh intentionally interviews persons who were either nominally Catholic, agnostic, atheist, or Protestant to avoid the trend making the issue about Catholicism versus Pentecostalism. These first missions coincided with the Mexican Revolutionary War. This crisis convinced many Mexicans of the need for a religious source for meaning. Mexicans in California were attracted to the healing traditions of Pentecostals rooted the Azusa street revivals. In order to solidify Latin@ Pentecostal identities, the Latin American Bible Institute was started in California and Texas by the Assemblies of God. Men and women were allowed to take classes there; this is a phenomenon that is strange because on one hand the anti-intellectual strand of Pentecostalism depends upon only the Bible and the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand, lines of orthodoxy had to be drawn somehow to keep members from sinking into error.
According to Sanchez Walsh, in 1967, LABI graduate ‘Sonny’ Arguinzoni had a vision to reach East L.A. for Jesus Christ. It was through him that Victory Outreach was started to address the at-risk youth and drug addicts. Pentecostalism served as a spiritual hospital to help Vietnam war veterans and former gang members get off the streets and off drugs and into the churches, living as productive citizens. The emphasis on deliverance and holiness with strict codes of moral conduct, along with the Latin@ vision of family aided Victory Outreach’s mission to reach the lost. Sonny Jr. served as youth minister and began to evangelize to gang members on the street, while ignoring some of the strict guidelines against secular music. Street dramas and Christian hip-hop were used to invite the Latin@ gang subculture to participate into the Latin@ Pentecostal subculture.
Pentecostal scholar and personal friend Ekaputra Tupamahu first showed me the theological roots of the Azusa Street Revival, which was grounded at first in the highly problematic Anglo-British-Israelism theory. It was more likely the continuationist leanings of the early Pentecostal movement in the U.S. that lead participants to open up itself to people of various cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. What better religion for bodies of color who have been injured and experienced hurt than one that affirmed belief in supernatural healings?
My problem with cessationism is that once pastors lead churches into believing that the Holy Spirit does not work as God does in Acts, then the Bible held captive by limited cultural interpretations. Take for example, take dispensationalist pastor John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference this week, where polemics and mischaracterizations have held sway. The scary thing that happens when you study church history, is that you find some troubling things. When it comes to the more Calvinist-leaning dispensationalism of MacArthur, one will find that part of its founding lays in the deep in the heart of the Confederate States of America; what better theology to preach than the one of the premillenial rapture for Christians who felt that God had betrayed them by taking their “property” away from them, losing their livelihoods and family members in the process? One of my friends once went to hear John MacArthur speaking at a megachurch, and he went on to provide a defense for the enslavement of African Americans on American shores. (linked is the sermon, trigger warnings for apologizing for the Confederacy). Seems like a bad habit for Christians. A really bad one.
A commitment to cessationism is more likely to make pastors and churches close themselves off from communities that may not look like them. The same could be said of continuationist/Pentecostal churches, but theologically, continuationist churches are committed to opening themselves up and receiving the Word of the Lord by way of their neighbor and the Holy Spirit. One possible theo-political implications of Arlene Sanchez Walsh’s research was that continuationist theologies of Pentecostal/charismatic congregations could serve as sources of hope for persons who have experienced a great deal of traumatic violence in their lives. The driving existential crisises that Sanchez Walsh alluded to, the Mexican Revolution, the Vietnam War, and War on the streets between the gangs played major could be seen as ministry moments whereby Latin@ Pentecostalism’s healing tradition offered an alternative to racial violence. We should pray that the Holy Spirit disrupt events like Strange Fire, and that the Spirit leads the leaders at that conference to be conformed in the image of our Liberator and Reconciler, Christ Jesus.