A Movement Born in a Stable
To half a billion Pentecostal followers, it is the most important address in the world: Azusa Street, where in 1906 an African American preacher named William Seymour and his followers experienced a radical outpouring of the Holy Spirit that led to one of the largest religious movements in history.
Today, however, markers of the revival that changed the world are all but absent. Azusa Street is a garbage-strewn alley in Little Tokyo, the backdoor to such businesses as a Japanese sports tabloid. The two-story church that believers say housed an astonishing outbreak of healings and speaking in tongues is long gone.
But this week, as thousands of believers gathered again in Los Angeles for the World Pentecostal Conference, a long-stalled effort to give the site its due took a significant step forward.
In a ceremony marked by prayer, song and an Azusa Street history lesson, a multicultural memorial committee brought together Pentecostal and Japanese American leaders, planted a grapefruit tree as a living memento of the revival period and unveiled broader plans for a memorial art project.
At the committee’s request, the city of Los Angeles also put up a historic marker just in time for the world conference: “Site of the Azusa St. Revival from 1906 to 1931. Cradle of the Worldwide Pentecostal Movement,” it reads.
“Rev. Seymour’s story is an inspirational story about how one person can change the world,” said Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, who first began thinking of ways to memorialize the site a decade ago.
Project members envision a mural and computerized kiosk that would tell of Azusa Street’s rich and dramatic history.
The revival began with 12 people in stinking, fly-infested ground-floor church stables, made even more exotic by the mingling of men and women of diverse races. The congregation met there because the second-floor sanctuary was being converted into apartments. Within two years, the church had expanded into a worldwide evangelism effort unseen since the days of the New Testament, said Cecil M. Robeck Jr., a project committee member, leading expert on Pentecostalism and Fuller Theological Seminary professor.
Today, those who worship in the Pentecostal style represent the world’s second-largest bloc of Christians after the Roman Catholics, larger than all Orthodox and other Protestant denominations combined.
“I have to say that God made it happen,” Robeck said.
“When you have been touched by God in a supernatural way, there is no going back. You’ve been captured for life.”
But Pentecostalism is not Azusa Street’s only claim to historic fame. The street housed the first church established by Biddie Mason, who became the first black slave to win her freedom in California courts and eventually started the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Over the years, the area has provided a central home for Jews, African Americans, and now, the Japanese American community.
“Azusa Street had a multicultural, multiracial beginning, and even though things have kind of split up now, the memorial might inspire people today to think about coming back together,” Watanabe said.
His interest in Azusa Street was sparked by encounters with people wandering around Little Tokyo with maps in their hands, looking for the site. An American Baptist, Watanabe said he had no idea what the site’s historical significance was until a friend told him Seymour’s story.
“Wow, I thought, this is not only history, this is a story for today in terms of understanding, hope and inspiration,” Watanabe said.
In 1996, he assigned a student intern to research a potential project and a year later set up the first meeting with church and community members to kick around ideas. The idea for a mural came up quickly, and, in 1998, the group decided to try to complete the project for the 2001 Pentecostal World Conference in Los Angeles, which had just been announced. Committee members figured getting it done in three years would be a breeze.
Efforts to gain the approval of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, which owns the wall on which the mural would be painted, have moved slowly. The center has been preoccupied with its own issues and leadership changes, and officials have been cautious about first securing support from members of the Japanese American community, many of whom are unfamiliar with Pentecostalism.
“We want to make sure it’s done appropriately with a lot of community support,” said Tom Iino, the cultural center president. He said the center would have to canvass the community, including the large number of Japanese American Buddhist temples.
The center did give approval a few years ago to putting a small memorial plaque into its red brick plaza, designed by world-renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Les Hamasaki, who heads the cultural center’s entrepreneurial committee, is one board member who is enthusiastically pushing for more as a way to revitalize Little Tokyo.
The area, hit by Japan’s long recession and the shrinking size and geographical dispersion of the Japanese American community, is hemorrhaging from a steady exodus of business.
Shimizu America Corp. has donated time for a design analysis to convert Azusa Street into an attractive promenade. Using Old Pasadena as a model, the construction firm unveiled design concepts this week for a red brick alley graced with plantings, tables and chairs.
In other parts of the community, however, there was some unease. When the project was first presented to the Nikkei Interfaith Fellowship, composed of Japanese American Buddhist and Christian leaders, some members felt slighted that a Pentecostal representative did not accompany Watanabe to pitch the idea, said Noriaki Ito, senior priest of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo. Some members wondered if the no-show reflected a Pentecostal rejection of interfaith gatherings, Ito said.
The Buddhist priest added that he was ultimately supportive but proposed that Japanese American Buddhist and other Christian churches be recognized in some way also.
Charles Crabtree, second-in-command of the Assemblies of God, said any reluctance to meet was driven by a desire not to appear overbearing. The denomination has kicked in $5,000 in seed money for the project and will donate “a significant amount” more, he said.
As Pentecostal faithful lingered at the site after the tree-planting ceremony, their devotion was palpable. When one group was asked what Azusa Street meant to them, a member replied, “You got all day?”
“Without Azusa Street, I probably wouldn’t be Christian,” said Kim Levin, a Swedish Pentecostal. “Even though I’m from Sweden, I trace my history and heritage back to here.”