An Evangelical Revival

Ruben Martinez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is currently finishing a book about life and death in the borderlands

They say Yahweh is the God of the Desert, so I've come to the desert to look for him. I kneel on clean, soft, gray carpet, steadying my suddenly wobbly body by holding onto the pew in front of me. There is another force that keeps me from falling, a slightly trembling hand on my back, right between my shoulder blades. It is the hand of Brother Arturo of Guadalajara. An usher at the church, he's my spiritual sponsor this Sunday afternoon in this baked town about 30 miles east of Palm Springs, where aging Chicano gangsters, recently arrived immigrants and poor, hard-working people employed at local factories and in the desert fields live.

On the altar, a band plays a slow spiritual, an MTV-age hymn with just three chords repeated in an endless loop that sounds like a hypnotic rock jam of the late '60s--a wall of Christian sound. The pastor, Luciano Montes, is an amicable, paunchy thirtysomething. He stands at the pulpit, bellowing into the microphone, a baritone without much technical grace but who inspires through sheer enthusiasm.

The anthem is sung and played loudly, stadium-loud, but it is still not enough to drown out the congregation. Some faithful sing along, others sputter rapid prayers, others tearlessly wail, still others tearfully laugh.

Now the hands start moving. First, an elderly woman, silver hair delicately covered by a mantilla, waves right hand heavenward, hailing the savior. A Chicano O.G., with head shaved and checkered Pendleton shirt draped loosely over his burly body, claps suddenly, rapidly, almost angrily, not to the beat of the band, but to his own, private catharsis. Even the 10-year-old girl in front of me, all bright eyes and crooked teeth--her electric hands flutter above her head.

I feel it. With Brother Arturo fervently praying at my side, with tears streaming down the faces of the elders at the altar, with the band filling our hearts with that earnest spiritual--I feel the power that drew this congregation together.

If you want a religious experience that feels like the raucous times we live in, the Pentecostals can provide it. About 400 million other people around the world have thought similarly and, unlike me, switched from Catholicism or whatever "mainline" church they grew up with. As with many changes taking place in California these days, much of the energy is coming from that insurgent, much-maligned force: Latino immigrants.

There are some 1,000 Latino Protestant churches in the city of Los Angeles alone, the majority of which are evangelical. There are thousands more throughout the Southwest. Even within the Catholic Church, the Pentecostal influence is felt: The number of "charismatic" churches, congregations that want to remain within the Catholic flock but seek the kind of spiritual pyrotechnics of the evangelicals, is on the rise--and this movement is also powered, to a great extent, by Latinos.

Though a recent survey by the Tomas Rivera Center indicates that 77% of Latinos remain more or less faithful to Rome, the momentum is on the side of the Pentecostals. Catholics switch to Pentecostalism in large numbers--and hardly ever the other way around.

Pentecostalism is the religion of our times. It has the right tone (apocalyptic), the right rhythm (fast), the right philosophy (communitarianism as a salve for urban fragmentation and paranoia). You might say Pentecostalism is the MTV of religions: It's hip, precisely what a crew of Pentecostal teens, dressed in torn jeans and flannel shirts, told me at a mammoth Mexico City revival recently: "We like it because it's different."

On April 9, 1906, in a wood-frame house on Bonnie Brae Street (in a neighborhood that is today Pico-Union) a new Day of Pentecost came to pass. Over time, the flock who gathered on Bonnie Brae and, later, at a former livery stable on Azusa Street in downtown became famous for causing a quake that rocked the spiritual Richter scale.

The Pentecostal gathering featured all the trappings of early Christianity, particularly the mystical, and sometimes downright scary, "speaking in tongues." It also was a manifestly L.A. experience, for the City of Angels has always been a place where, despite its radical individualism, and race and class segregation, people, at key moments, always find a way to come together and rise above it all.

Among the first followers of preacher William Joseph Seymour, an African American, were blacks, whites and Mexicans. What they had in common was that they were all of modest means, the "forgotten ones" whom the mainline churches had gradually and ultimately neglected.

Nearly a century later, on the cusp of the millennium and with not a little millennialism in the air, Los Angeles is on its way to fulfilling the promise of Azusa Street. Today, Pentecostalism is a symbol of the new Los Angeles: The majority of the faithful are Latino, about evenly split between immigrants and their native-born children. Whether it's the San Fernando Valley or South-Central, the Westside, East L.A. or the endless stream of communities that stretch out across the Southern California desert, our spiritual landscape is being remade by storefront churches, housed almost exclusively in older buildings, some of which were on the verge of collapse before the arrival of the spiritual revolutionaries.

Who says the immigrants are powerless? There stood the legendary Million Dollar Theater on Broadway, forlorn, dusty and with only the memories of the glory days when Mexican pop immortals like Jorge Negrete performed to sold-out crowds. For years, the Million Dollar and other Deco beauties along the Broadway corridor were regularly mentioned in this or that master plan of downtown renewal. It took a Brazilian evangelical sect to bring the monument back to life. These days, the Universal Church broadcasts live on cable TV from the Million Dollar, a young, energetic and immigrant version of the televangelical experiences of Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral.

Along the Echo Park/Silver Lake corridor of Sunset Boulevard, dozens of storefronts were boarded up as the neighborhood underwent a downturn in the 1980s. Today, cruise Sunset between Alvarado and Fountain and you'll witness a revival that would have made Sister Aimee Semple McPherson proud. (The Pentecostal church she founded, recently refurbished, stands a block below Sunset in Echo Park, and would be a quiet place today without its Asian, East European and Latin American immigrant following).

What lures Catholics and followers of other religions to Pentecostalism, besides the infectious, emotive "signs of the spirit" at the evangelical services? Just as the Nation of Islam has offered many African Americans not just a new set of spiritual symbols but a whole new lifestyle in which economic improvement is as important as bodily purification, so, too, the Pentecostals. "How many times I prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe for my husband to stop drinking, for more money to buy the things we needed," a Latina mother told me recently at a revival meeting in Los Angeles. "But it only happened when we started going to the Iglesia Cristiana."

Rather than believing that the Beautiful Reward will come only in the Hereafter, Pentecostals, who believe they are a "chosen" people, avidly pursue it in the here and now. Through job networks, youth-outreach programs, immigration services and the like, Pentecostals fill in the gap left when government services diminished. While many mainline churches also offer these programs, it's not enough to fill the demand.

"Pentecostals become active agents of their own salvation," says Luis Leon, a professor of religious studies at Carleton College. "Oftentimes, taking charge of the spiritual dimensions of life translates into taking over the material realm as well. Pentecostals demand more of society; their expectations are higher. There's a sense of entitlement."

The Pentecostal revival can be seen as a democratic re-sacrilization of life in the famously hedonistic City of Angels. It is not the result of a neo-colonial spiritual war. In the 1980s, leftists justifiably decried some right-wing U.S. evangelical churches getting involved in CIA counterinsurgency schemes in Central America. Though some Pentecostal churches espouse a right-wing view of the world, many congregations verge on the liberal. Many churches try to rein in rebellious youth, while many others allow room for some "worldly," youthful styles--rock 'n' roll, rap and "hip" dress.

While Pentecostalism may have spread, initially, via missionary fervor, ultimately, like any good politics, it lives or dies on the home front--in your neighborhood. The preacher at the storefront down the block isn't a spiritual mercenary from afar. He, and almost as often as not, she, is the accountant who lives next door, the manager of the local discount store.

What has yet to occur is the kind of Pentecost that, as at Bonnie Brae and Azusa streets, would heal L.A.'s modern-day Tower of Babel and bring rich and poor, white and nonwhite together. At the turn of the century, the tongues spoken by the faithful were radically different, but united in the Spirit (or, in more secular terms, by their common interest in a better world, here and now). But there is faith among the immigrants that just such a day is coming soon.

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