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A Miracle Revisited

Reflections on the 25th anniversary of the racial reconciliation gathering in Memphis.
MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Leaders from across Pentecostalism gathered at the historic Mason Temple and world headquarters for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in Memphis on March 19 for the annual Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America (PCCNA) meeting and to celebrate the 25th-year anniversary of what is known as the “Memphis Miracle.”

A quarter century ago, delegations from the white Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (PFNA) came together with leaders and members of the predominantly black COGIC in Memphis under the theme, “Pentecostal Partners: A Reconciliation Strategy for 21st Century Ministry.” I had the privilege of attending on behalf of the Pentecostal Evangel, where I served as managing/interim editor and as a member of the International Pentecostal Press Association executive committee.

For decades, the PFNA had been an all-white organization. However, in the early 1990s, key leaders began to dialogue on ways to heal the racial divide, which led to a defining moment in October 1994. As a consequence of the meeting 25 years ago, the PCCNA replaced the PFNA, signaling inclusiveness of all races and ethnicities.

When blacks and whites convened 25 years ago, no one realized the significance of the dynamic taking place. It became more than a moment of historical significance; it served as a divine object lesson in the unifying power of Pentecost.

Noting the events of the 1994 meeting, Assemblies of God Assistant General Superintendent Alton Garrison reminded attendees how at the beginning of the 20th century Pentecostals led the way in interracial relations, but later bowed to the cultural norms of the day in separating themselves.

During the original meeting, Charles E. Blake, African-American bishop of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, urged attendees, “We must commit to be brothers and sisters or forget it all right now.” Then, with his voice filled with emotion he said, “We cannot wait or delay any longer.”

A spontaneous standing ovation and concerted prayer followed. Then what followed was an unplanned, unexpected, and unprecedented act of humility and racial reconciliation. White pastor Donald J. Evans of Evangel Temple Assembly of God in Tampa, Florida, requested permission to wash the feet of Bishop Ithiel Clemmons, a general board member of the Church of God in Christ. In turn, Blake asked to wash the feet of Thomas E. Trask, AG general superintendent.

Moved to tears, participants in the dialogue bowed on the concrete floor of the Dixon-Meyers Hall to ask God’s forgiveness for past racism and intolerance. An utterance in the Spirit and an interpretation affirmed that two major long-separated streams now had come together in unity. The miracle of Memphis brought Pentecostals back to the roots of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring early in the 20th century.

Following this backdrop, Blake, presiding COGIC bishop, cited a statement made by Bishop B.E. Underwood, general superintendent of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, during the 1994 event: “One of the most dramatic aspects of the Azusa Revival was the breaking down of racial barriers in the midst of a racist American society.” The statement, “The blood has washed away the color line” has often been quoted since.

Reflecting on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Azusa Street in 1906, Blake noted that, despite this dynamic movement in unity of the Spirit that transcended the shameful racist culture into which it was born, in subsequent years the Pentecostal church succumbed to the pressure of media attacks. With few exceptions, all signs of racial unity had disappeared by 1914.

“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 as a shining example of what God can do to solve the problems of racism and discrimination,” Blake stated.

Blake noted that in more recent years there has been a resurgence of racial animosity, resulting in shootings and other violent acts. The rise of white nationalism has ushered in an era of serious and perilous times.

“As people of faith, it is imperative that we renew our commitment to reconciliation, that we shout the message of love and reconciliation in every venue from the local church pulpit to the places of power in the national government,” Blake implored.

Blake urged the PCCNA to make a strong, unequivocal statement decrying words and actions in opposition to racial reconciliation.

“This is another God moment, and we cannot afford to let it pass,” Blake declared. “I beg you, take the initiative to pour the healing balm of love into moral and spiritual wounds that endanger the nation that we all cherish. This can be the greatest hour of the PCCNA, and it can be an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to our founding principles.”

Focusing on the history of the early Pentecostal outpouring at Azusa Street, PCCNA President Jeff Farmer stated that in 1906, a Pentecostal tsunami rushed across the continent through a hunger and thirst for God. Among Christians in holiness and deeper life movements, the central teaching of this visitation from God focused on the baptism in the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues.

Today, Spirit-baptized believers constitute the largest family of Protestants in the world. This Spirit-empowered river has touched virtually every nation, race, and language group, and today numbers nearly 700 million people worldwide. At Azusa Street a spark became a prairie fire, and today is recognized by historians and scholars as one of the mightiest revivals and missionary movements in the history of the Church.

In 1906, Seymour began holding services and something supernatural took place in Los Angeles. Services were generally unscripted with open prayer for 30 minutes to an hour, everyone interceded at the same time, in English and in tongues. There was robust, expressive worship. People continuously repented and were gloriously saved and healed. Crutches hung on the walls, water baptisms were held in the Pacific Ocean. The early negative press just served to spread revival far and wide.

Sadly, as noted by Blake, the revival did not continue, as American society bowed to the pressures of segregation. Despite the effects of the civil rights movement and federal legislation that helped overcome segregation nearly a half century later, the Spirit-empowered church still needed a breakthrough from walls of isolation, separation, and segregation.

As a way to renew their commitment, Farmer led the congregation in a unison reading of the 10-point “Reconciliation Manifesto” drafted for the 1994 gathering.

Aaron Campbell, African-American chairman of the PCCNA Race Relations Commission, noted that the PCCNA has made great strides, but there are still challenges and barriers to overcome. He sees the ultimate goal of the commission to eliminate the need for such a panel.

“There should be no reason for us to have to talk about race relations, we need to be able to focus on other things,” Campbell stated. “However, until that happens, the commission is providing helps and resources to help whites and blacks understand how to be more in tune with one another.”

Campbell stressed that we Christians of all races need to be more intentional in efforts to connect, in love.

“I can talk Jesus, preach Jesus, pray to Jesus, but until I live Jesus, I’m just making a lot of noise.”

In the midst of presentations and reflections upon the past and present issues surrounding racial reconciliation, a special moment of partaking in Holy Communion took place. Blake, Assemblies of God General Superintendent Doug Clay, and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, led the observance.

“May we who come to the table of the Lord as one body do more than just talk the talk, but recognize that we are brothers and sisters in Christ because of His shed blood,” Clay said. “Communion reminds us that never again does there have to be separation between God and man. I pray that we will make a commitment that there never needs to be separation in the body of Christ because of the color of skin.”

Rodriguez presented the bread, noting a practice in the AG church he pastors in Sacramento, California, to exchange the bread with another person as a sign of fellowship within the Body as a sign of unity (John 17:21, Ephesians 4:4). Congregants in Memphis were encouraged to do the same.

PCCNA Prayer Commission Chairman P. Douglas Small delivered the concluding message and challenge for the evening.

Small, president of Project Pray in Charlotte, North Carolina, challenged attendees to learn from the past while looking to the future. He noted how after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, early Christians needs to rely upon the Holy Spirit for guidance.

The fledgling group of Christians grew exponentially in a sea of paganism. They did it by holding secret meetings because the new religion had been outlawed. They did it with no buildings, no budget, and few resources, and virtually no favor from political powers. Yet, these formally untrained followers, changed the world!

“Can it happen in our day,” Small asked. “In those early days, ordinary believers fellowshipped with the fire, and in the flow of their daily lives, they carried the gospel where they lived and worked. They were salt and light!”

Our future is in our past. It’s found in the DNA of prayer at the intersection of mission. With a deep dependence on God, and with the Holy Spirit burning like fire in our bellies, He will move us to the next town and to the next generation.

Small noted the importance of two cities to the Pentecostal movement: Antioch and Los Angeles. From Antioch, the missionary starting point of the Church, the Holy Spirit groomed and sent forth Saul and Barnabas into the ministry.

In modern times, Los Angeles also is significant. The sparks of the Azusa Street Mission spread the Pentecostal revival around the world.

What did God really want to do at Azusa Street? He wanted to give birth to a new race unseen in modern history. The apostle Peter called it the “chosen race.” It’s not the black, white, Hispanic, or Asian race. It’s the select race. Pentecost gave birth to a church that would transcended skin color, a church that gathered the speech of heaven and declared prophetically what God wanted to do on earth.

This is our hour again. We need to embrace what happened at Azusa Street. We must go back to the future and discover our prayerful, missional roots one more time.

Our early Pentecostal forebears had little formal education. They preached from burning hearts. Most didn’t have a clue about sermon preparation, but shared what they learned praying over ragged, marked-up Bibles stained with tears. And rising from calloused knees, they humbly declared that what God had done for them He would do for others.

A true Pentecostal encounter changes everything: our view of God, the devil, sin, holiness, friendships, enemies.

“Only the Holy Spirit’s power can reach the culture that we are in,” Small said. “We must go back to the future. God is inviting us to join Him.”