Pentecostal-Charismatics

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

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Slate is alarmed that some Pentecostals mix politics and prophecy

Slate is alarmed that some Pentecostals mix politics and prophecy

Pentecostal Christians who believe in modern-day prophecy and support President Donald Trump gathered more than a year ago in Washington, D.C. That should be enough to frighten anyone braced for battle against theocracy.  

Worse still, they gathered at the Trump International Hotel, so you know that here is something deeply menacing to the future of America.

Ruth Graham ofSlate wrote about “The Turnaround: An Appeal to Heaven,” drawing in part from an on-site report filed Jan. 18, 2018, by Peter Montgomery of People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch.

Here’s the strange twist. Montgomery’s report for the activist group surpasses Graham’s report for the more journalism-oriented web daily.

The key difference is that Montgomery’s report conveys a more nuanced picture of this melodramatic gathering, whose leaders are clearly outliers in the evangelical subculture.

Montgomery writes:

Joining [Dutch] Sheets at the conference — called “The Turnaround: An Appeal to Heaven” — were Chuck PierceCindy JacobsLou Engle and other leaders of the “intercessory prayer” movement, along with 1,300 attendees who filled the Trump hotel’s presidential ballroom to capacity for hours of music, prayer, speaking in tongues, and prophetic decrees. Many of the conference leaders have been working together and supporting one another’s ministries for decades, and they joked and teased each other on stage. But they were utterly serious about their mission in Washington, D.C.

Right Wing Watch’s video shows a small rock outfit in the background, including a saxophonist, so we can at least presume that the music was engaging.

Montgomery clearly knows the gold to be mined when a writer can sit in on a gathering of like-minded people and listen carefully to what they say.

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The Daily Beast trips covering Bethel Church and America's current heroine -- Megan Rapinoe

The Daily Beast trips covering Bethel Church and America's current heroine -- Megan Rapinoe

One often wonders how seriously to take reporting at The Daily Beast; replete as it can be with advocacy journalism, big blaster headlines and your basic clickbait material.

This is why I can’t get too upset with their latest mash-up — a combo of World Cup soccer headlines and a shoddy report on northern California’s Bethel Church. Their headline tries to say it all: “Bethel Church in Redding, California, is pro-Trump, believes in conversion therapy, and endorses ‘faith healing’ and ‘dead raising’ — far cry from its most famous resident.”

That resident just happens to be the purple-haired, out-lesbian, all-world soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who just led the U.S. national women’s team to victory at the World Cup.

It’s too bad the reporter didn’t actually visit Redding but instead relied on material from other publications. It would also help if he checked spellings of words such as “Pentecostal” and understood that the Assemblies of God is not a congregation, it’s a denomination. Factual errors like those near the top of this kind of story mar any further reporting attempts.

I’ll pick up the story here:

Rapinoe’s international celebrity has put Redding and its political fault lines in the spotlight. But the politics of Redding are complicated beyond simple party affiliations, in part because the town is also home to another divisive, wildly successful, cultural claim to fame: the Bethel Church. The multimillion-dollar revivalist megachurch has stirred controversy in Rapinoe’s hometown and throughout the religious world for its embrace of consumerist Christianity, extensive gay conversion therapy programs (Rapinoe is an out lesbian), and semi-mystical practices. Bethel members believe that miracles can occur on earth, and YouTube is filled with footage of their efforts: from faith healing, to “fire tunneling” (where members form a “tunnel” with two lines and speak in tongues to people passing through), to “grave sucking”—where someone lies on a grave to “suck up” the dead person’s blessings.

“Semi-mystical practices?” The New Testament also alleges that miracles can and do occur. The New Testament is rather mainstream material for a billion or two people living on this planet.

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Daily Beast shocker: The Rev. Mariano Rivera is (#EndOfTheWorld) a Pentecostal minister

Daily Beast shocker: The Rev. Mariano Rivera is (#EndOfTheWorld) a Pentecostal minister

There are few people in the sports world who are universally acknowledged as the Greatest Of All Time at what they do. However, the pros who cast Baseball Hall of Fame ballots made it clear — with a first-ever unanimous vote — who is the GOAT when it comes to cutting down opposing batters in the ninth inning.

That, of course, would be Mariano Rivera, the legendary closer for the New York Yankees.

That would also be the man known as the Rev. Mariano Rivera, the Pentecostal minister who renovated a 107-year-old church sanctuary in New Rochelle, N.Y., to become Refugio de Esperanza, or Refuge of Hope Church. While his wife — the Rev. Clara Rivera — serves as pastor, the former Yankee great is also ordained.

If you know anything about Rivera, you know that he has never been shy about discussing his faith (see this New York Daily News piece in 2011). His Hall of Fame acceptance speech was not a sermon, but it was full of references to Christian faith.

This is where things get tricky. Truth be told, Pentecostal Christians believe many things that would turn a lot of elite-market journalists into pillars of salt (it’s a biblical thing). Quite a few Pentecostal beliefs are considered unusual, even strange, by middle of the road Christians. And some forms of Pentecostalism are seen as more extreme than others. Oh, and “Pentecostalism” and “Evangelicalism” are not the same things.

Are you ready for the shocking part of this equation? Some Pentecostal beliefs have political implications. For example, a high percentage of Pentecostal people can accurately be called “Christian Zionists,” as that term is now defined. Many people think Christian Zionists back Israel for all of the wrong reasons.

By all means, there are valid news stories to report about these topics — if the goal is to understand the life and work of Mariano Rivera. The question, today, is whether an advocacy publication like The Daily Beast can handle this kind of nuanced religion-beat work, especially in the Donald Trump era.

You see, for editors at the Beast, Rivera’s religious faith is only important to the degree that it is political. That belief led to this headline: “Inside Baseball Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera’s Far-Right Politics.” Here is the crucial thesis material near the top of this advocacy piece:

For countless fans, Rivera is baseball royalty — an idol, worshipped for his on-field dominance, deadly mastery of a cut fastball, and pinpoint control.

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Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

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Convert or die: Washington Post profiles evangelicals reaching gang members in Brazil

Convert or die: Washington Post profiles evangelicals reaching gang members in Brazil

Criminal gangs and their rampages through society are a cancer in Central and Latin America and very few governments have a clue as to how to change the situation.

Prisons are beyond overcrowded, the economies are poor and many people are unemployed, which ramps up gang membership. And yet some nervy evangelical pastors in the hinterlands of Brazil have come up with an idea of how to use social media to pull people out of gangs.

That brings me back to this Washington Post piece, which I’ve been meaning to get around to for some while, since came out a month ago. It’s quite a read and worth a flashback.

RIO BRANCO, Brazil — As the sound of gunshots grew closer, Janderson Viera knew that the rival gang that had taken over his neighborhood was coming for him.

Running to his bedroom, he called the only lifeline he had left: the Rev. Arnaldo Barros.

“I want to convert,” he said.

As gang wars drive Brazil’s homicide rate to historic highs, evangelical pastors — long revered in the nation’s slums and prisons — have come up with a new way to protect members looking for a way out.

For anyone wondering why evangelical Christianity has exploded in Brazil, this story explains why (click here for a classic blast of Pew Forum data on this).

For those of you needing a review of the past few decades, this story summarizes the enormous growth of evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostals, in Brazil. Most seem to be former Catholics.

Back to the Post:

Gang leaders say the only way to leave the business alive is to convert to Christianity. So Barros, a televangelist popular here in western Brazil, memorializes a gang member’s embrace of the ancient articles of faith using the most modern of tools: He records the conversion on his smartphone and posts the videos on YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp. The converts gain immunity against retribution by rival gangs and their own.

Gang leaders and law enforcement officials say it works.

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That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

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When Los Angeles police nab pastor of Mexico's largest church, press scrambles to learn about Luz del Mundo

When Los Angeles police nab pastor of Mexico's largest church, press scrambles to learn about Luz del Mundo

A story just broke in Los Angeles the other day that has barely raised a ripple in U.S. media. However, Mexican newspapers and TV are transfixed by it.

Most Americans have never heard of this enormous 12,000-seat La Luz del Mundo church complex in Guadalajara. (A translated promo video is here). Built like a multi-tiered wedding cake, its concentric white scalloped walls turn various rainbow colors during festivals. It towers over the city and is Mexico’s largest evangelical Protestant church.

Its pastor, Naasón Joaquín García, was just arrested Monday at LAX and slapped with a bail set at $50 million, the highest ever imposed by a Los Angeles County judge. Imagine if Mexico had thrown Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen into jail. That’s the level we’re talking about.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times are two of the American print outlets really covering this and even they are scraping for details about this church. From the New York Times:

The leader of La Luz del Mundo, a church with its headquarters in Mexico that claims to have more than one million followers worldwide, was charged Tuesday in Los Angeles with more than a dozen sex crimes, including allegations that he forced children to have sex and made them pose naked for photos, the authorities in California said.

The leader, Naasón Joaquín García, 50, was arrested Monday at Los Angeles International Airport, according to the California attorney general’s office. Mr. García is considered by La Luz del Mundo, which has locations in the Los Angeles area, to be an apostle of Jesus Christ.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the airport that morning. Here’s this man walking onto U.S. soil expecting to visit his four daughter congregations in southern California when –- WHAM -– the police show up.

In a 19-page complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday, prosecutors said there were four victims, three of whom were children. One child and a woman were raped, prosecutors said in the complaint. Mr. García is also accused of human trafficking and forcing children to perform oral sex.

The crimes occurred from 2015 until 2018 in Los Angeles County, the authorities said.

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An issue that never goes away: What do U.S. religious groups teach about abortion?

An issue that never goes away: What do U.S. religious groups teach about abortion?

THE QUESTION:

What do U.S. religious groups teach about the contentious abortion issue?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Remarkably, the abortion issue is as contentious as when the U.S. Supreme Court liberalized law 46 years ago, with new state restrictions injecting it into courtrooms and the 2020 campaign. The following scans significant teachings by major religious denominations.

The Catholic Church, the largest religious body in the U.S. (and globally), opposes abortion, without exceptions. A Vatican Council II decree from the world’s bishops declares that “from the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care,” and calls  abortions “abominable crimes.” The official Catechism says the same and dates this belief back to Christianity’s first century (Didache 2:2, Epistle of Barnabas 19:5).

Eastern Orthodox and Catholic leaders have jointly affirmed “our common teaching that life begins at the earliest moments of conception” and is “sacred” through all stages of development. However, America’s 53-member Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops acknowledges “rare but serious medical instances where mother and child may require extraordinary actions.”

A Southern Baptist Convention resolution before the Supreme Court ruling advocated permission in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity” or damage to a mother’s “emotional, mental, and physical health.” The SBC later shifted toward strict conservatism on many matters. A 2018 resolution affirms “the full dignity of every unborn child” and denounces abortion “except to save the mother’s physical life.”

Two United Methodist Church agencies helped establish the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (since renamed Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) to champion women’s unimpeded choice. But the 2016 UMC conference directed the agencies to leave the coalition, and voted to withdraw endorsement, upheld since 1976, of the Supreme Court’s “legal right to abortion.” The UMC recognizes “tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify” abortion. It opposes late-term abortion except for danger to the mother’s “physical life” or “severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.”

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