WHO ARE WE?
Latin American Pentecostals
North American Pentecostals
Members of World Council of Churches member communions
World Council of Churches staff
Because of the diversity of the group the first task faced by the participants was to get to know each other better. This was accomplished by a testimonial session that extended over several days. The personal stories told during those sessions brought individuals closer together and, at times, united them almost completely on issues of personal concern. Space does not permit to summarize all that was said. The following is a selection from some of those personal stories.
A Mar Thoma Bishop
Bishop Zacharias Mar Theophilus is a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. He described the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India as one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, founded by the Apostle Thomas in the first century.
The church represents a tiny minority in India where 85 percent of the population is Hindu. Even so, there are some 30 million Christians in India. The Mar Thoma church has 10 bishops and a general assembly composed of 60 percent laity and 40 percent clergy.
The church has a missionary outreach, the bishop reported. We have sent many missionaries to several parts of India, Nepal and other places . . . . Now we are having a dialogue with the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church and others. The Mar Thoma church is autonomous and affirms the Nicene Creed. The church has existed for hundreds of years among Hindus and other groups because of the strength of its liturgy and its worshiping community, Zacharias said. The bishop expressed an interest in getting to know more about the Pentecostals.
An American Pentecostal Woman
Anthea Butler is a member of the Foursquare Gospel Church, USA, founded in the 1920s in Los Angeles by famed evangelist Amy Semple McPherson. Anthea said she was converted from Roman Catholicism in mid-20s. I was invited to a Foursquare church by a friend, she said. The singing was so beautiful and I would never sing in Mass. I started crying. After several years, however, she realized her conversion was probably a fulfillment of my experience as a Roman Catholic.
The four squares of the gospel preached by McPherson are Jesus as savior, healer, baptizer and coming king, Anthea said. The church stresses baptism by the Holy Spirit. Unlike some Pentecostal churches, the Foursquare Gospel Church ordains women, in part because it was founded by woman. Even so, Anthea acknowledged, the role of women has diminished somewhat in the churches. Women are called as pastors of congregations but in many cases they are partners of their pastor-husbands.
The Foursquare Gospel Church is today stronger outside the United States than it is at home, but it follows McPherson's lead and has a strong social emphasis. That was an integral part of what (McPherson) did in Los Angeles, Anthea noted. She operated a food bank during the depression that fed thousands in L.A.
As an African-American, Anthea said she has sometimes been disappointed in the lack of support her sisters and brothers received from white Pentecostals during the civil rights movement in the United States. They left us and hid behind Jesus, she asserted.
A Latin American Pentecostal Man
I was born in the Catholic Church and I consider my conversion to be a true miracle, Pastor Narciso Sepúlveda Barra of the Pentecostal Mission Church testified. We were evangelized by our maid in our home, a simple, illiterate woman who was ill and preached the gospel to persons who had no relationship with to the Protestant church. I had received my first communion eight month earlier and the catechism classes criticized the Pentecostals and said they were ignorant people. I had a conversion experience at 10. My life would have been different than what it turned out to be, but all in my family except for my father (a lawyer) became Pentecostals. For us, it was a profound experience of faith that makes me feel privileged to have known the gospel in the Pentecostal church.
The Pentecostal Mission Church (Chile) is a member of the World Council of Churches (see also page ....).
Chilean Pentecostals are socially active and recognize the ministry of women, Narciso said. The church used to have contacts with the Assembly of God until Chilean Pentecostals decided to oppose the Pinochet dictatorship which we thought was a Christian thing to do -- and we lost our contacts with the Assembly of God."
A Pentecostal Man from the United States
Dr. Phil Hilliard, pastor of Bethany Church of Alhambra, California, USA, said he is a third generation Pentecostal. I received Christ at 9 and at 12 received the infilling of the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues. I was also called to ministry through a very dramatic vision. It was remarkable and I am astounded to think about it even to this day. Phil has been an Assemblies of God pastor for 35 years.
Phil expressed his love for the church. I do at times disagree with some of our official positions but I prefer to express those in appropriate ways to appropriate persons. I struggle with our inability to effectively address issues of racism.
Phil said he is occasionally asked why he is ecumenical. Over the years as a pastor, he said, I have been active in local ministerial associations and it didn't take me long to discover that there were pastors from other congregations who loved the Lord as much as I did.
Pentecostals should do more to address the urgency of living in the Spirit, Phil said. We feel we have accomplished it if we make noise, speak in tongues, et cetera, but we need 24 hours a day in the Holy Spirit. It involves charisma, the gifts of the Spirit. It motivates us to share our faith by example and by verbal witness. It gives us an appreciation for the greater church.
A World Council of Churches staff member and European man
Huibert van Beek said he grew up in the Netherlands in a community of Plymouth Brethren (the "closed" group). I grew up there until I was 17, never knowing if I had a personal faith or not, Huibert acknowledged. It was a community in which the older people were always telling the young people they needed to make a personal decision for Christ or they could die in a car accident or so and be lost forever.
But it took the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 to force Huibert to re-examine his relationship with God. I realized there was no salvation in human power, he said. In front of a television screen I realized that I had been brought up in a world that was not willing to put itself at stake when Hungary was invaded -- and decided not to come to the rescue.
When he went to university to be trained as an engineer, Huibert was led into the Student Christian movement by a fellow student. That is where I discovered the liberating message of the gospel, setting me free to serve. Later on when I went to work for the churches in Madagascar I learned that liberation also meant struggling for justice and human dignity. I recognize moments in my life where God, through Jesus, grabbed me and said, wait a minute, you belong to my community, Huibert said.
A Latino Pentecostal man in the United States
Dr. Samuel Soliván, a Puerto Rican now working as a professor at Andover Newton Theological School, said he felt closer to Latino Pentecostals and persons of color within the Pentecostal movement than with white Pentecostals within the U.S.
He also said that his experience within the academic community has been a struggle. Pentecostal seminaries did not exist so Pentecostals were forced to attend mainline schools which criticized their theology. For me, this was a kind of left-wing fundamentalism that rejected my culture, my tradition, Samuel said. In seminary we also face proselytism from the liberal churches which try to force Pentecostals to accept their faith, their theology, their definition of ministry. If we don't accept their criterion, we will not get our degrees.
At Andover Newton, where I am tenured professor of systematic theology, I have been given total freedom to teach whatever I want. Other Pentecostals from Boston area schools come over to ANTS to take the course and the school is very supportive. On the other hand, they are very uncomfortable with me because they keep the stereotype that Pentecostals are fundamentalists. But Pentecostals are much more open and ecumenical than other members of the faculty at ANTS.
A Greek Orthodox Woman from the United States
Despina Prassas said she is the daughter of Greek parents and her father is an Orthodox priest. She has been Greek Orthodox all her life and, after a period of searching other approaches to faith, she has renewed her commitment to her church. I have come to really love Greek Orthodox services and to feel they are my home, she said.
I prayed about where I should be going and my spiritual advisor prayed with me and I felt God was calling me back to Orthodoxy, Despina said. Since then I have been very involved in my church. Now I am in a doctoral program at Greek Orthodox Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts (USA).
Asked about the status of women in the Greek Orthodox Church, Despina replied, had it been up to my church, I would not be here today. I am grateful that the WCC continues to impress my church about the role of women. I am grateful to the men in my church who are pressing for the importance of all of us working together. Our Patriarch said women interested in being ordained to the diaconate should be presenting themselves to the church. Women in Orthodoxy have a lot of opportunities if they are willing to take them -- if they listen to God and are willing to do the work God is calling them to do. I encourage Greek Orthodox women to follow their heart.
Despina also stressed how difficult it is to be an Orthodox Christian in parts of the world where they are persecuted for their faith or proselytized by other Christian groups.
A Latin American Pentecostal Woman
Pastor Marítza León of Iglesia Cristo Viene in Venezuela described four projects of her church to minister to persons in need. Definitely, we are a singing ministry, she said, describing one project to train community singers and another to teach songs in women's prisons.
We have lived through very sad moments like all the peoples of Latin America, especially difficult political moments, as when our children cannot go to school because their parents cannot buy the uniforms they need, and when there is no food. Generally, the mother is the head of he household. We work with Simón Bolivar University to research why in the marginalized poor areas there is this problem. We discovered that poor women were more open to the word of God than others.
Through a new community center built by our church, we see a face of hope that comes from a God who leads us with music and singing, she said. Our message to the people: Learn to live in the midst of your reality with faith that God is with us.
A mainline U.S. man
The Rev. Douglas Estella, a pastor of the Reformed Church in America in New York City, described himself as an evangelical.
I was raised Roman Catholic, experienced acceptance of birth and new life through Pentecostal Hispanic pastors in the Bronx -- but I never crossed the line, he said. I became a professing Christian at 21. Then in the Air Force I was in an ecumenical group of young airmen who embraced Jesus Christ. I walked into a Reformed Church and it was almost like being converted again. I discovered a system of doctrine that matched scripture. I discovered in the RCA a cathedral of doctrine and I loved every nook and cranny, every window, every gargoyle.Reformed theology gave him a place to stand, Doug said. The doctrinal standards of my church were not dead wood to me as they were to my colleagues born in Grand Rapids -- I found roots that I did not have before. I also found an ecumenical expression of that reformed faith that was not isolated from the rest of the church.
Doug said that his heritage includes such Reformed leaders as Arie Brouwer, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson and a tradition that goes back to W.A. Visser't Hooft. I am also an evangelical within the RCA, so I feel at home in a lot of different places. I will be an evangelical, I will be ecumenical, I will be reformed.
An African-American Young Adult
Garland Pierce said he is a fifth generation member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I joined the church at 12, Garland said. The AME church emphasizes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and I made a profession of faith at 12.
There were a number of holiness churches in the black community where I grew up, Garland said. There was a sense of ecumenism. All the churches within the community would come to the same church for revivals. In my home congregation, there was a class distinction: the AME church was upper working class or a black professional church. Members of AME might see holiness churches as a tad bit extreme, but they would not be uncomfortable with it. Within the denomination we have a fairly recent movement known as neo-pentecostalism, and in those churches there is great growth.
Garland said neo-Pentecostal AME churches are still typical AME -- middle class blacks -- and they have large social justice and social action outreach programs. AMEs have exhibited a wide variety of worship styles since the beginning.