A Pentecostal minister swaps the pulpit for a panel

"Action Speaks!"
By PHILIP EIL  |  October 9, 2013

'AN OUTPOURING OF GOD'S SPIRIT' The Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission on Azusa Street.

The panelists for this year’s AS220 “Action Speaks!” series — which, as always, features discussions of “underappreciated 20th-century dates that changed America” — have traveled to Providence from Cambridge, Manhattan, Philadelphia, and other cities across the Northeast. But when the guests convene for October 17’s conversation about the 1906 Azusa Street Revival and the birth of Pentecostalism, the out-of-towners — gospel steel guitar virtuoso and NEA National Heritage Fellow, Chuck Campbell; Bowdoin College Assistant professor of Africana studies and musician, Judith Casselberry — will be joined by a man from Providence.

No, Pastor John J. Owens isn’t a “local” in the strictest sense. He comes to Rhode Island’s capital via Cincinnati, where he grew up, and the Deep South, where he honed his ministering chops. But these days you’ll find him preaching from the pulpit of the Truth Tabernacle United Pentecostal Church at the corner of Elmwood and Potter’s Ave. in South Providence. The Rhode Island Foundation may not have had Pentecostal churches in mind when they rolled out their recent “Rhode Island: It’s All in Our Backyard” campaign, but, yes, we’ve got those, too.

The Phoenix paid a visit to the Truth Tabernacle on a recent afternoon to catch a preview of Pastor Owens’s remarks. Bypassing the baptismal bath and the musical instruments onstage in the church’s sanctuary, we instead made our way upstairs to Owens’s office, where a “PREACH THE WORD” plaque was affixed over the doorway and a set of miniature NFL helmets sat on the bookshelf behind Owens’s desk. (Regarding his approach to evangelism, Owens says: “If you’re hungry for a knowledge of God, then you’re going to be open to receive that and then…we can be open to a dialogue about that. If you’re not, I will be able to discern that and we’ll talk about football.”)

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

WHAT IS PENTECOSTALISM? When you look into the scripture on the day of Pentecost — in Acts, the second chapter — the Holy Ghost was poured out, God’s spirit was poured out on believers and they received the Holy Ghost and they spoke in tongues. So speaking in tongues is one of the common denominators amongst Pentecostal people, that we all speak in. . . another language, otro lingo in Spanish, glossolalia in Greek.

It’s an experience. And a lot of people that aren’t around it, they don’t understand it; it’s confusion to them, may even be foolishness to them. But. . . like anything, if you understand it, it’s not foolish to you. It’s a biblically based experience; it’s a spiritual experience that’s based in the word of God. What it is is, essentially, God speaking through you.

WHAT’S THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE YEAR 1906 AND THE AZUSA STREET REVIVAL? Really, regardless of what denomination or branch of Pentecostalism, we all kind of trace our roots back to that time and date. It’s not one day. If you look at the Azusa Street Revival, it was four or five years. It went on for a long time.

That revival involved an outpouring of God’s spirit, where people began with the manifestation of speaking in other tongues. There [were] massive amounts of healings: blind eyes were opened, lame people being healed of their lameness or infirmities, and these types of things. . . manifestations of God’s spirit that had not been registered anywhere for hundreds of years or thousands of years, even, in history. So it was kind of like a modern-day outpouring of God’s spirit, much like the day of Pentecost 2000 years earlier.

I don’t believe that God just does anything by happenchance. I think God is a God of order and organization. So if you look at Los Angeles — the West Coast of the United States — it seems to be . . . one of those places where it would be centrally located. Because missionaries from Asia were coming to the Azusa Street Revivals and then taking that experience back to their mission fields in Asia. It seemed like, to me, there was a central location of Los Angeles, California, both to Central and South America, to Asia, to Canada, to the United States East Coast, and eventually over to Africa and Europe and so forth and so on.

It wasn’t just something that happened from 1906 to 1913, ’14. It has absolutely spread throughout the entire world. And there are 600 million, thereabouts, Pentecostal believers today.

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