THE MEMPHIS MIRACLE
Bishop B.E. Underwood
The Modern Pentecostal Movement began in 1901 under the leadership of Charles Fox Parham. But the miraculous expansion of this sovereign move of God took place under the leadership of William J. Seymour in Los Angeles, California in 1906. This spiritual explosion was the beginning of the greatest phenomenon of church growth in the Twentieth Century. This pentecostal/charismatic movement now numbers approximately 500,000,000 strong in the world.
One of the most dramatic aspects of the Azusa Street Revival was the breaking down of racial barriers in the midst of a racist American society. The statement, which has been often quoted, was that "the blood had washed away the color line." There is no questioning that the Holy Spirit performed a tremendous miracle in bringing to this dynamic movement a unity of the Spirit which transcended the shameful racist culture into which it was born.
But tragedy lurked in the midst of this triumph. The fledgling movement came under vicious attack by the secular media. One of the primary points of this attack was the miracle of racial reconciliation. The press became spokesmen for a racist society. This blistering attack on the prophetic pentecostal movement was too much for the Euro/American participants. They succumbed to the pressures of the racist culture, rather than continue to surrender to the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. The manifestation of racial reconciliation survived at Azusa Street for about three years - from 1906 until 1909. With few exceptions, however, all signs of this racial unity had disappeared by 1924.
There is no doubt that God Almighty was providing a supernatural remedy for racism in America. The recipients of the supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit could conceivably have provided a beautiful paradigm shift in the midst of a culture dominated by Jim Crowism. Sadly they missed this God-given opportunity. They heeded the call of the wild rather than the bidding of the Spirit.
The result of this fall has been three quarters of a century of division in the pentecostal family in America. What a difference it could 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 could do to solve the problems of racism and discrimination!
When the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (PFNA) was formed in October of 1948 in Des Moines, Iowa, all of the participants were from white pentecostal denominations. This pattern continued until the PFNA was disbanded in 1994.
While there had been many efforts to bring African/American pentecostals into the fellowship, none had succeeded. The division was too deep for this kind of reconciliation. Several members of the Board of Administration of PFNA had discussed and deplored this state of affairs over the years, but a dramatic move was necessary in order to bridge this racial chasm.
I became Chairman of PFNA in October of 1991. At the first meeting over which I presided on March 6, 1992, the Board of Administration of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America voted unanimously to pursue the possibility of reconciliation with our African/American brethren.
There were four steps in the road to the Memphis Miracle. This could be called the Reconciliation Dialogue Journey.
First, there was a meeting on July 31, 1992, at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Hyatt Regency Hotel. There were ten people in this meeting, but there was only one African/American. Bishop O. T. Jones, Jr. made a significant contribution to the Reconciliation Dialogue process. His presence at the meeting was crucial to the journey. There were several other African/American leaders who were invited to this meeting, but none of them came. Two or three did send their regrets and expressed their desire to attend.
The second meeting took place in Phoenix, Arizona, January 4-5, 1993. This was a powerful meeting. Thirty-three denominational leaders and pastors spent two days in prayer and dialogue concerning this reconciliation. While the only African/American representative present was Pastor Reuben Anderson from Compton, California (he was sent to represent Bishop Charles Blake), he was a powerful catalyst for this meeting. God spoke prophetically in this meeting and all of the participants became convinced that we were involved in a move of God. I knew following this meeting that God was at work to accomplish reconciliation.
The third event was the PFNA Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, October 25-27, 1993. Bishop Gilbert Patterson and Pastor Jack Hayford both spoke powerfully to this convention on the subject of reconciliation. It was during this meeting that Bishop Ithiel Clemmons and I were asked to serve as Co-Chairman of the Reconciliation Dialogue to take place in Memphis, Tennessee, January 10-11, 1994. Twenty representatives from each of the two movements met to make final plans for the climax of the Reconciliation Dialogue in Memphis, September 17-19, 1994.
I presented a Focus Statement to the Racial Reconciliation Dialogue in the opening evening service on October 17, 1994, which included the following:
"We are gathered here in Memphis, Tennessee, to return to our roots and to recapture the initiative of the Spirit. This will be a time of repentance for the sins of the past. This will be a time of forgiveness as we rely upon the wonderful grace of our loving Heavenly Father and mirror that grace in our relationships with one another. The time has come for reconciliation! The time has come to recapture our heritage! We gather here as the children of God and heirs of the twenthieth century pentecostal/charismatic renewal of the church. Our Father has called us to unity.
"The theme of our meeting is Pentecostal Partners: A Reconciliation Strategy for 21st Century Mission. The goal is to bring healing to this part of the Body of Christ. We really have no choice. Our Lord has called us to unity. The high-priestly prayer of our Savior is that we all may be one, so that the world may believe in the only begotten Son of God. We grieve over the 88 years of rebellion against the reconciliation work of the Holy Spirit. We return with all our hearts to the unity of the Spirit manifested during the blazing revival at Azusa Street.
"The Reconciliation Dialogue which will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings will deal with some of the major issues facing us. We will look at the Historical Roots of Racial Unity and Division. We will examine The Problem of Racism and Discrimination in the Pentecostal Movement. But we will then turn to The Biblical Pattern for Unity. And finally, we will focus on a Strategy for Reconciliation.
"But we have not gathered just to talk about the issues. We are here to act. We must take substantial steps toward implementing the strategy for reconciliation. As a first step in this direction, the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America will conduct its final convention tomorrow afternoon. The final act will be to dissolve the PFNA in order to make way for a new fellowship which will be an interracial fellowship.
"The organizational meeting for the new interracial fellowship of pentecostal churches will be held Wednesday afternoon. A Structure Committee has prepared a constitution to be considered at this time. A Nominating Committee will present a proposal for a twelve-person executive committee composed of an equal number of African-Americans and Euro-Americans.
"We must also identify and enlist a key group of leaders who will serve as catylists in major cities across America to implement the vision of this reconciliation. The example set by the pentecostal/charismatic community in Memphis during the past six months may well point the way for dozens of other locations. God seeks to restore the unity of the Spirit that will position us to truly evangelize our nation. Racism in the pentecostal/charismatic community must be eradicated. The communion of saints must become a visible reality.
"This meeting will certainly not be the end of Gods reconciliation strategy. It is just the beginning. We have a long road to travel. We must purpose to travel this road together. Like a marriage that has come apart, our recovering the unity of the Spirit will require both courage and commitment. We still have much to learn about each other. We will have to travel through times of both repentance and forgiveness. But thank God, we have set our faces in the right direction!
"Seven years from now, if Jesus tarries, the Pentecostal World Conference will meet in Los Angeles, California. During the week leading up to Pentecost Sunday, we hope to have the largest gathering of pentecostal/charismatic believers ever held on the North American continent. As we gather to launch the second century of the pentecostal renewal, we want to present to the whole world a model of racial reconciliation in the American pentecostal community."
The Memphis Miracle was widely covered by the media. Newspapers from the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times gave considerable space to the event. It also triggered action toward racial reconciliation on many other fronts. Several denominations and para-church organizations took significant steps toward reconciliation in the months following the Memphis meeting.