I spent a year there one day

Pentecostal storefrontDavid Gonzalez has a fantastic story in the Sunday New York Times on a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. It’s the first of three articles exploring life in the church, called Ark of Salvation. The two future installments will look at the struggles of pastor Danilo Florian, a factory worker by day, and the church’s efforts to reach out to the next generation.

The article does get into political issues, since it seems that we can’t discuss religion without getting into politics. But before it wanders too far into that territory, it’s a very personal look at the 60 or so Dominican members of the congregation. I think the reason why he tells so many stories about the congregants — that have absolutely nothing to do with politics — is because he spent a year with them:

To spend a year with this congregation is to see a teenage single mother and party girl discover the strength to go to college, marry in the church and land a job. It is to see a former political radical and brawler pray over alcoholics in the park. It is to see the 50-year-old pastor roaming the city, driving the church’s van to gather members for Bible class or trolling for converts outside an upper Broadway subway station — to keep the Ark afloat, and growing.

One imagines that a few Sundays with the congregation would not have yielded the same look. It’s easier to write about politics and religion than to truly get a feel for what individual experiences in a congregation are. Although two of my best friends are Pentecostal, I have never really understood the attraction to this fast-growing brand of Christianity. Even though I’ve read a great deal about Pentecostalism, this is the first article to really help me understand it. Even though it was people-driven, the story got into the doctrinal peculiarities of the faith and talked about those in a very straightforward manner. While there was a bit of editorial summarizing time to time, Gonzalez stuck mostly to descriptive storytelling.

Here’s one woman you meet in the article:

The room grew hot, and a strange sound came rumbling from up front.

“Omshalamamom!” shouted Lucrecia Perez, her hand thrust into the air, her eyes clenched shut. “Shambalashalama.”

She was speaking in tongues, an ecstatic and indecipherable flood of syllables that often erupts during intense worship — brought on, the faithful believe, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, part of the divine Trinity. Though uncommon or unheard of in most other Christian churches — even dismissed as hokum by some ministers — it is celebrated here as the very mystery that gives the faith its name.

. . . And its members, proud and stoic, are reluctant to accept handouts. When Ms. Perez, the woman who spoke in tongues, had her hours as a home health aide cut back, she and her daughter Genesis moved into a homeless shelter for eight months. For weeks before their eviction, she asked the congregation for prayers, but barely hinted at her plight.

“I can’t ask them for money,” said Ms. Perez, 46. “They don’t have it to lend. They need what they have for a new church.”

Last April, Pedro Garces, the building manager and a church member, found her an affordable studio. Whatever happens, members are constantly reminded, the Ark will bear them up.

“We will never be alone,” Pastor Florian said one night during Bible study. “That is God’s promise.”

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Azusa Street revival. It also marked an uptick in the quality of stories about Pentecostalism. And this story is an excellent addition. Rather than portraying members as crazed, emotionally unstable simpletons, this story treats its subjects as individual agents with an understandable rationale for their lives in the church.

This article’s sympathetic portrayal of one Pentecostal congregation gives much food for thought for Christians and other religious adherents. But the congregants’ compassion for the poor and sense of community make a worthwhile read for the nonreligious, too.

Major kudos for Gonzalez, who I don’t believe reports on religion regularly, and for his editors at the Times. Imagine if more papers devoted the time and resources they did to getting a story like this done right.

Photo via Fluzo on Flickr.

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  • Jerry

    I was particularly struck by:

    “It’s good,” she said, “to be in a place where they see you not by how you look, but by what’s in your heart.”

  • Roberto Rivera

    When I was fifteen, my mother joined a Hispanic pentecostal church very much like the one described in the article, except that it had its own building. I recognized Templo Sinai in the piece. Years after I left the barrio, these folks were still there, living in their Habitat-built homes. My mom moved to the ‘burbs with my sister but still went ot church 2 or 3 times a week back in the inner city to be with the people she called “hermanos” and “hermanas” and who called her “hermana” back. When she died, the entire church came to her funeral and overflowed onto the street.

    I never felt comfortable as a Pentecostal but there’s no doubt that these were some of the best, if not the best, people I’ll ever know.

  • http://www.spudlets.com Marc V

    Pentecostals can make for good TV, particularly the faith-healers like Benny Hinn. Thus you get the preconceived notions about Pentecostals and the occasional cheap shots. But that’s OK, because where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.

    While the 100 year anniversary helped produce more “good” articles, people are beginning to take seriously the fastest growing Christian denomination/religion in the world. While some third-world churches may have a Presbyterian or Methodist name in their title, their services tend to be much more Pentecostal than those in the US.

  • Michael

    It’s an amazing series so far. As much as one likes to criticize the NYT, they are one of the few newspapers with the money and resources to allow reporters to have this much freetime to pursue a story.

    I wonder what a religion reporter would have done with the story. Like the non-sports investigative reporters at the SF newspaper who uncovered the Balco scandal, I wonder whether NOT being a religion reporter made this a better story. Would a religion reporter have felt the need to delve into the liturgical/non-litugrical, high-church/low-debates that so often preoccupy religion reporting. Would the studied religion bias have made this a less interesting story???

    It’s an interesting question to ponder.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    “since it seems that we can’t discuss religion without getting into politics.”

    This is one of my pet peeves. I remember listening to NPR a few years ago and the person being interviewed was the senior orthodox rabbi in France. All the interviewer wanted to talk about was Israel’s foreign relations. All I wanted to hear about was how do Orthodox Jews live as Jews in modern anti-religious France.

  • YetAnotherRick

    Pentacostals also make for great movie(s). Mollie, you should watch Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle.” Pentacostals themselves played many roles in the movie. You can tell that Duvall had great respect for them.

  • Dominic Glisinski

    Pentecostalism. I could tear it to shreds as mindless, pietistic, pharisaical, happy-clappy, entry-level, historically illiterate, and shallow. But I won’t.
    I had to leave it. I had to. It was enough to make me scream after 25 years of it. I suppose its a good “starter church”…nah.