Williamsburg Pentecostals Feel the Spirit

"Pick up the telephone right now! You’ve got a direct line to Jesus," cries the elderly woman to the kneeling group of worshippers sunk into the thick carpet at her feet. On an elevated stage, bathed in a glimmering strobe of lights, the members of Iglesia Carismatica Espiritu de Hermandad shake their hands in the air to the rhythm of the woman’s exhortations to feel the Holy Spirit inside of them.

Some members moan loudly while others bury their heads into the carpet, sobbing. As this ritual warm-up continues, a few feet away other church members chat obliviously, straightening seats and plugging in their electric guitars in preparation for the regular Sunday morning service.

Situated on a quiet block in South Williamsburg, the Iglesia Carismática is a pink cement giant, topped with marquee letters and a bright red cross. With over 400 members who travel from Manhattan, Queens, New Jersey and throughout Brooklyn to attend services, this Charismatic church is one of the largest of the dozens of Pentecostal churches in the area.

The church offers to its congregation, composed of both recent immigrants and established Puerto Rican and Dominican citizens, spiritual and social solace from the pains of migration, alienation and poverty. Pentecostalism, an American-born religious movement that has become the fastest-growing evangelical group in Latin America, is returning to the United States with the new face of immigrant Latino and Hispanic converts.

This is particularly apparent in South Williamsburg, as each street seems to hold at least one small storefront Pentecostal church or observation hall alongside the colorful bodegas and barber shops. Some of these recent immigrants say that Pentecostalism offers them something that neither their heritage of Roman Catholicism nor their new homeland can provide: a personally empowered vision of the future.

Eva Muniz, 63, the wife of Pastor Carlos Muniz of the Iglesia Cristiana Damasco Pentecostal in Williamsburg, explains that before she converted from Catholicism, "I wasn’t as close to God as I wanted to be." In Catholicism, she says, "everyone belongs but no one belongs."

The enormous success of Pentecostalism, a form of Evangelical Protestant Christianity, stems from its heady blend of born-again Christianity and native faith rituals. Originating in the displaced, working class communities of Los Angeles at the turn of the century, Pentecostalism emphasized individual interactions with the Holy Spirit.

To this day, such a relationship remains most controversially exhibited by people speaking in tongues as well as by other spiritual interactions, such as faith healings, signs, and wonders, that encourage Pentecostals to become physically possessed by the Holy Spirit.

The movement was initially seen as a backlash against the discriminatory, middle-class restraints of mainstream Christian denominations, with most converts coming from poor immigrant and African-American communities. Pentecostalism’s working-class origins, along with its lack of hierarchical structure and easy access for all to immediate divine experiences, have led to the movement’s growing success in today’s globally transient culture.

As with most born-again Christians, Jesus is an active figure in the daily life of Pentecostals, guiding even the smallest of actions. However, their faith tends to be more emotional, often appropriating music and language from popular culture in their service. This distances Pentecostals from some of the Biblical, anti-modernist attitudes of their Fundamentalist Protestant counterparts.

And, in many ways, it is this direct connection to holiness that has made Pentecostalism a formidable threat to the Roman Catholic church, which has traditionally maintained a stronghold on Latin America.

In "The Next Christianity," a sweeping recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, Phillip Jenkins, a prominent American scholar of religion, describes the next century as a shifting global landscape of increasing religious significance. With Latin America and Africa already comprising the majority of the global Christian population, Jenkins envisions an approaching geopolitical rift between First and Third World countries. "The next century," he predicts, "will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs."

According to a survey done by the Catholic Church, every hour 400 Catholics in Latin America convert to Pentecostalism or some other fundamentalist or evangelical church. Ms. Muniz, for one, says that Puerto Rico "has always been close to God," whether its worshipers were Catholic or Pentecostal. The Catholic Church, however, is taking this threat seriously, with Pope John Paul II calling for action to deal with the "serious problem" of Protestant Pentecostalism and other religious movements drawing away Catholics in Latin America.

Back inside the Iglesia Carismática Espiritu de Hermandad, the band has just finished a pounding ballad in praise of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary set to a merengue beat. The worshippers are moving quickly, dancing, pumping their fists in the air, clapping, twirling and hopping. The music quiets down to a hush, and another sound fills the room; a mix of whimpers and moans, the gift of the tongues has fallen onto many members of the church.

Pastor Bernardo Perez then takes the mike. "The hand of God is in this room right now. Feel it! Feel it!" he implores. The whine mounts and breaks and some members seem to loose control of their bodies as they jerk and spin. But Pastor Perez next begins his lecture on the Holy Spirit and its role in everyone’s lives. The music starts up again, softer and dulcet, soothing the quieting whine.

"We believe music brings you to the presence of God," says Anthony Torres, 22, the son of Iglesia Carismática Pastor Tony Torres. In a carefully regimented program, each service at the church begins with a prayer session, followed by an hour of music and ending with a scriptural reading. The emphasis is on the individual and the music, which is easily viewed in a room mixed with experiences: teenagers play with Game Boys, middle-aged men drop to their knees and speak in tongues, while women pass children back and forth.

This sense of direct divine guidance has translated into a license for many church members to play a role in community affairs. "We have many people who have come from other countries who say they couldn’t even speak to a police officer in their country. Here they can express themselves," says Jose Rosado, a police officer.

Rosado, who has been a part of the 90th Precinct Police and Clergy Organization, is emphatic about the role local churches have played in transforming Williamsburg. "There’s a big difference in the crime rate. It’s like a small village now," says Rosado. The organization, composed of more than ninety Williamsburg churches and police officers, meets every other month to discuss local crime prevention programs and social needs.

As the local churches continue their evangelical work of transforming communities, they confront several powerful social forces, most particularly the wave of gentrification that has washed over the neighborhood in recent years. Pastor Vizcaino and others emphasize the importance their churches play in sustaining the local Hispanic and Latino communities in Williamsburg, helping fight against displacement as real estate costs rise.

Ms. Muniz, of the Iglesia Cristiana Damasco Pentecostal, laughingly describes the increasingly present culture clash between the gentrifiers and the members of the Pentecostal churches who use the summertime sidewalks to spread the word. Neighboring loft residents often call the police to complain about the church’s sidewalk concerts. "If we have to go to jail, we will," says Muniz. "It’s our responsibility to preach the word of God."

Contributor

Claire Hoffman

Claire Hoffman is a journalist based in Williamsburg.

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