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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