Thursday, January 11, 2007

Some of my experiences with Pentecostalism (Part 2)

When I was a boy, on Sunday evenings, I would listen to the live radio broadcast of the small “sanctified” church that was on our block (literally, down the street and around the corner). “Sanctified” was the term used in the Black community to describe Pentecostals (the members, themselves, referred to each other as “saints”). This church was a congregation of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a predominantly Black, Christian denomination and currently (I think) the largest Pentecostal denomination in this country.

On this radio broadcast I would get a taste of how “sanctified” people worship. I recall hearing songs that had a very upbeat, fast tempo. With the Hammond organ, drums and tambourines, you could not say there was anything sad and mournful about sanctified music. (Just a word about tambourines: Along with their Bibles, some of the saints would bring their own tambourine to church. We’re talking genuine participatory worship.) As in most Black churches, whatever the denomination, there was hand clapping (always on beats 2 and 4; never, ever on beats 1 and 3), but the tempos were so fast, it was difficult for most of us non-Pentecostals to keep up (I’m pleased to say, when it comes to hand-clapping, I eventually learned to keep up with a sanctified beat!).

By far the most unusual features of sanctified worship were the dancing and speaking in tongues. When the services would get into high gear, the tambourines and drums would beat out the rhythm for the “holy dance”. (It was a bit later before I actually saw holy dancing in action—quite a sight to see, by the way.) The percussion would whip things up to a very fast rate of tempo (still emphasizing beats 2 and 4), and the Hammond organ would play along using a rapidly running bass. When I heard that music, I knew the saints were holy dancing (or “shouting”, as they also called it). It was fascinating to me since absolutely nothing like that ever occurred in my staid African Methodist Episcopal church (some of the women in my church would occasionally holler and scream…but dancing? That was going too far, for us AMEs.). The “shouting” or holy dancing would go on until the saints got it out of their system.

The other unusual feature was speaking in tongues by the pastor (I can’t tell you whether it was genuine or not; I’m just reporting what happened.). No doubt, others were also occasionally speaking in tongues, but since this was radio, the pastor was the only one I heard. Tongues were, indeed, unusual, but I didn’t find it scary, demonic, threatening, or anything like that. I just understood at the time, this is how “sanctified” people worship—this is simply what they do.

This was the extent of my exposure to Pentecostalism until my high school years. At that time, I became aware that Pentecostalism wasn’t restricted to the Pentecostal church, but it also appeared in more mainstream churches.
(To be continued…)

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