We are Pentecostal: Reclaiming a Revolution

By Calvon T. Jones ’18 M.Div.

I am a Pentecostal, Jesus-loving, Jesus-worshipping, music-making, congregationalist, charismatic, singing, tongue-speaking, social-justice-seeking preacher and minister on staff at the Memorial Church at Harvard University. To some, all this might look paradoxical. Yet I am not a walking contradiction. I simply aim to be who the early Christians were: a Pentecostal people who were a part of a movement centered in a deep commitment to revolutionary love, diversity, unity, justice, and compassion. 

There is a possibility that God doesn’t want the church to return to its old pattern of divided houses of worship on Sunday mornings. We need to imagine differently and grasp the vision of Pentecost.

Pentecostalism has sometimes been stereotyped to mean any charismatic worship: shouting, dancing, radical praise and shrills, vibrant clapping of hands, the swaying of bodies to the beat of drums accompanied by a blazing Hammond organ, lead guitar, and keyboard. Sometimes its message of the revolutionary love that first came down at Pentecost has been appropriated by gatekeepers of the church and warped into self-righteous sermons and theologies of hate. I believe nevertheless that we are called to retrieve the true meaning of Christian identity and Pentecostalism in order to heal church and society.

A Historic Birthday

I dare to say it: we are called to be Pentecostal and to reclaim the movement that was birthed in an Upper Room in Jerusalem by the early Christians in the first century of the Common Era. The day of Pentecost is the birthday of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism is not a denomination; it is a movement, rooted in the revolutionary love, compassion, and spirit of Christ. It is a movement where the Holy Spirit empowered people to set the world ablaze with love. In the face of the reemergence of white nationalism, the persistence of white supremacy and racial injustice, and the theological distortions of contemporary sects today, we desperately need ”true” Pentecostals to arise, from every corner of the world, and recover the early vision of the church: to unite, to share the light of Christ through love and justice, to honor differences and break barriers, and to be equipped by the Holy Spirit to begin a moral revival and “turn the world upside down” through the radical love of Christ.[1]

In a nation where religion and Christianity are regarded as intolerant, divisive, or vulnerable to takeover by extreme political ideology, those who are committed to justice and the love of Christ are called to come together in unity, with an aim toward true reconciliation and hospitality. The biblical writer of the literary corpus Luke-Acts writes, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”[2] Like those early Christians, we are called into authentic fellowship and unity “in one place.” Making churches more meaningful and public life more humane—this dream requires that we all do the work of love and justice together.

Conditions are Ripe

I first glimpsed the power of this message as a teenager. At the age of sixteen, I took a stand. I confronted sexism and patriarchy in a local church that did not honor the power and dignity of women. I called out the gatekeepers of that church. I fought. I resisted. And through the Holy Spirit, I helped efforts to reform the congregation’s old prejudices, tear down the walls of patriarchy, and advocate for women, constraining church leadership to make room for the women who were called to preach and carry the word of God. I visited this church recently, and I was overjoyed to see that the congregation is today led by women.

Conditions across the world are ripe for spiritual transformation. The recent pandemic has created a different church. As we continue to broadcast church to online viewers and seek to encourage people to physically return to church, congregations are struggling to remain open and carry out their missions. Church will never be the same, and there is a possibility that God doesn’t want the church to return to its old pattern of divided houses of worship on Sunday mornings. We need to imagine differently and grasp the vision of Pentecost.

Love United Black Fellowship

Recently, at the Memorial Church, I formed a worship space called Love United Black Fellowship, where churches from all over the greater Boston area, as well as a great diversity of students and others from all walks of life, can worship together and seek out ways to transfigure the community into a place of love, equity, inclusion, and justice.

In the face of state-sanctioned violence and white nationalism, Love United Black Fellowship gathers people to sing the songs of freedom—songs that were sung in the brush harbors and praise houses during slavery and throughout the long history of systemic oppression. The sounds of hope, liberation, love, emancipation, unity, and the gospel of Christ echo through the sanctuary each month—offered by the voices of Black people, white people, Indigenous people, Latinos, and other ethnic groups. 

This recurring event shows what is possible when believers get back in touch with a biblical vision of love and liberation and refuse to be derailed by endless doctrinal disputes. On the day of Pentecost, a fire and light appeared amongst the people in the Upper Room.[3] It is still available today: a rediscovery of that gospel light for the well-being of mistreated, powerless, or forgotten people. Amid darkness and evil, we are called to fight for those who are unhoused, and to proclaim freedom to those who are poor and incarcerated. With our sermons, with our votes, with our voices, and with our pens, we are to be a light and fight for those who are marginalized and outcast. To be a Christian and Pentecostal today, our love should shine as the light that filled that original Upper Room.

Contention and Conviction

People from Africa, Rome, Greece, Asia, and Judea gathered in that first Jerusalem Upper Room. Women and men gathered there. People with different identities, cultures, languages, and backgrounds assembled there. No barrier could prevent these early Christians from speaking and understanding the same language of love and compassion. 

Since then, the Pentecostal movement has had a complex, contentious institutional history that has often risked losing sight of its foundational vision. In Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition, author Daniel Castelo writes, “Pentecostalism has a rich and complicated story to tell and life to enact. Its particularities, characteristics, idiosyncrasies, and eccentricities all constitute a gift to the wider church and world. … Pentecostalism has been unhelpfully saddled with mutually contradictory epistemologies and theological methodologies across its reflective history, each often claimed exclusively by its espousers as ‘the Pentecostal option.’ … We need to move beyond the epistemological and theological constraints of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and focus on the totality of self-disclosure by this One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”[4] In other words, if the church of the 21st century is going to remain relevant, if the church is going to survive and thrive, we must remove impediments that prevent us from offering the love of Christ to all people. When the Holy Spirit shows up, walls are broken and torn down. To be a Christian and Pentecostal is to be brave enough to knock down the partitions. We are called to retrieve the tradition that emerged from the Upper Room; we are called to be a “Pentecostal People.”

A Holy Dance

The Holy Spirit has guided my feet from the sanctified, low-country church in North Carolina to the Methodist church, then to the Baptist church, the United Church of Christ, and now Harvard’s Memorial Church, a university church at a predominantly white institution. Over time, the work of the Holy Spirit has removed limitations from my life. I no longer feel bound by institutional identities, churches, denominations, creeds, or divisive traditions. The Holy Spirit compels me to spread compassion, light, liberation, prayer, healing, spirit, hope, and love to all people. The Holy Spirit drives me beyond the cramped enclosure of status quo worship. Rather, it sustains my African cultural memory while also reaffirming my syncretism of religious practice: my immersion in Western-European-American traditions as well as the faithful praxis of the African-American church that links inseparably to my Black experience, a story of song, dance, music, ancestral resilience, and journey for freedom. I have been called to worship, preach, teach, sing, and praise in different spaces, while remaining true to who I am, with the conviction that we all are called to do this work of justice and radical hospitality.

When I was a little boy, I remember learning about the “Holy Dance.”[5] The Holy Dance commenced whenever God’s people gathered, infused by the spirit of God, and danced together. I remember hearing about the Holy Dance that took place at Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906, led by Bishop William Seymour, the birthplace of modern Pentecostalism. This African American preacher began a revival amid racism, white supremacy, and Jim Crow segregation. He defied these norms by gathering white people, Latinos, Asians, Black people, and other ethnicities for worship, prayer, and praise. As on the day of Pentecost, they were empowered to obliterate social discord and hostility. Like the Spirit that touched the early Christians in the Upper Room, members of the Azusa Street revival performed a Holy Dance in the face of fragmentation, sectarianism, hatred, politically driven theologies, racism, and white supremacy.

In a day when the words “Pentecostal” and “Christian” have seemingly been hijacked by those who have made racism and hate their idols, may we renew the spirit of the first Christians and dance the dance of justice. Pentecost reveals to us a theology of love and compassion; it delivers hope to persons who have been systematically disenfranchised, dehumanized, and ostracized. It offers a solution to our partisan spiritual deadlocks. It ignites a fire that motivates us to move from our denominational silos. It stirs a wind that removes the false security of our doctrinal corners. If we open ourselves to its vision, Pentecost will give us the courage, the resolve to come down from our lofty pulpits and altars and into the street where the “least of these” reside. If we dare, like those in the Upper Room, we can through Christ spread the transformative love of God’s kin-dom.[6]

The Rev. Calvon T. Jones ’18 M.Div. serves as Assistant Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He is also a graduate of Morehouse College and Duke Divinity School, where he received his doctor of ministry degree in 2023, focusing on homiletics. In addition, he is a recording artist, composer, and singer. He released his first Gospel album in 2021. Follow him at @calvonjones on all platforms.

1. This well-known idiom, used by the early Christian movement, can be traced to Acts 17:6.

2. Acts 2:1 (New Revised Standard Version).

3. See Acts 2:3 (New Revised Standard Version)

4. Daniel Castelo, Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition (Eerdmans, 2017), pp. xv, xix.

5. The Holy Dance usually takes place amid the spontaneous worship and praise of a congregant. This dance occurs when the Holy Spirit overtakes and inhabits the person. The dance symbolizes the joy that Christ gives; it also inspires the believer to do the work of Christ in the world.

6. Although “kingdom” and “kin-dom” are used interchangeably in some religious spaces and theologies, “kin-dom” is meant here in a more inclusive sense, to reject the patriarchy and abuses of male authority associated with “kingdom” in Christian history.