Adapted and updated from an article written by Doug Stringer in March 2006 for the 100th Anniversary of the Azusa Street Revival….
Tens of thousands of Christians will converge in Los Angeles on April 9, 2016 for Azusa Now with Lou Engle to pray and observe the 110th anniversary of the Azusa Street Revival. On the same day thousands of pastors and leaders will gather for UnitedCry DC16 on Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to pray in a Joel 2 solemn assembly for the nation. Led by William “Daddy” Seymour, the Azusa movement has been called “the most phenomenal event of twentieth-century Christianity” (Christian History magazine).
I realize not all of you reading this are of Pentecostal or Charismatic persuasion, yet regardless of denomination affiliation, it’s hard to disregard the impact and influence it has had. Foursquare Missions Advance magazine says: “If a person were to need convincing as to the monumental impact of the famed Azusa Street Revival in 1906, all he or she would have to do is look at the statistics. Today, 27.7 percent of those in the global church refer to themselves as Pentecostal/charismatic—a demographic group that now comprises more than 523 million people.* Every year, more than 9 million new adherents enter this worldwide movement. That’s more than 25,000 people per day, making the Pentecostal/charismatic group the fastest growing segment of the church.” [*Christian History magazine records the number at 650 million worldwide.]
Statistics indicate that nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their Savior do so before reaching the age of 13, and less than one out of every four born again Christians (23%) embraced Christ after their twenty-first birthday (George Barna, 2004). Some studies indicate that for those who do come to Christ as adults, a large segment do so in churches with a passionate belief in the power of the Holy Spirit and His presence.
HOUSTON CONNECTIONS: PAST AND PRESENT
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the connections I have found between Azusa Street and Houston, as well as more personal connections between the Azusa movement and our Houston-based ministries. But I also believe the overarching significance of Azusa Street has a larger context even today, 110 years later, and that now more than ever the Church as a whole needs to be a plumb line of not only righteousness and justice, but also of healing, hope, and reconciliation. Prayerfully, we can understand the significance of this movement and how it impacted not only a particular city, but how movements born out of it are impacting nations all over the world.
William Seymour, a one-eyed African American, received his biblical education at a Bible college founded by Charles Parham, who relocated to Houston from Topeka, Kansas. The college was located in downtown Houston at 503 Rusk Street, which is now the site of a large federal building. According to the Azusa Street Centennial’s official website, Seymour, the son of former slaves, left Louisiana in search of a better life and was saved during his travels:
“He was converted in Indianapolis and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. A few years later he was ‘wholly sanctified’ in Cincinnati, Ohio, during his affiliation with another holiness group. He became a preacher following a severe case of small pox that left him blind in one eye and his face disfigured.”
The website article goes on to say Seymour had come to Houston in search of family. In the late 1970s, I, too, came to Houston in search of family, namely, my biological father. When I consider this, it seems almost ironic that the site of the Azusa Revival is now the location of LA’s “Little Tokyo” neighborhood and that I, a Japanese-American, was invited several years ago to participate in a re-enactment of the Azusa Street Revival by Fred and Wilma Berry, along with others who were organizing the Centennial Celebration.
Seymour began attending a Houston church pastored by Lucy Farrow and became interim pastor in 1905 when she traveled to Kansas City to work as a cook and governess for Parham. While in Kansas, Farrow was baptized in the Holy Spirit. She returned in the fall of that same year, and shortly thereafter Parham moved to Houston as well, where he opened the Bible college that Seymour would attend.
In his paper, “The Houston Connection,” the late V. Alex Bills—who was director of the Charles Fox Parham Center for Pentecostal-Charismatic Studies—noted the importance of Parham’s selection of Houston by quoting Frank J. Ewart: “When the Pentecostal fire struck and centered in Houston, the great metropolis of the South, a basis was established from whence [it] eventually spread to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
Over the past 35 years, the central theme of the ministries I help steward and serve has been: “From Houston, Texas to the four corners of the earth, from urban to foreign missions, from the inner city to unreached people groups . . . preparing a people for the coming of the Lord, with a message of consecration, commitment, and action.”
WORDS OVER OUR CITY
Seymour studied at the Bible college before he was called to pastor a church in Los Angeles, where God used him to bring forth a revival that began in the Bonnie Brae House and spread throughout the world. There have been numerous visions and prophetic words about Houston and even our own ministry that come to mind from this aspect of Seymour’s life, one being a word given by the late Leonard Ravenhill, a spiritual grandfather to me, during a visit with him in 1991:
“As you strengthen the hub, God will spread a fire of revival to the world. People will come to Houston and spend minutes to weeks, and go back to other parts of the world.” Similarly, I had a strong impression and dream several years ago of individual flames flickering throughout Houston. A wind came upon the city, fanning the flickers into flames that spread to the nations.
Another vision shared with our ministry was of an airline map with Houston as the hub city and points of destination going to various parts of the world. Still another was of a wheel whirling over the city, with people representing many different nationalities being pulled in and propelled out in all directions.
I believe the intersecting of William Seymour’s life and the city is one of the many prophetic pictures of Houston’s spiritual destiny in the days ahead. In 1995, I published an article in which I wrote, “I believe God wants to complete what He began in Houston years ago. God desires to use the ministries in the Houston area that are working together at a grass-roots level to see this brought to completion and fulfillment. Past revivals through the ages have consistently spread to other places; they have not remained localized. Given the international influence of Houston in business and transportation, revival in Houston can have an international impact.”
Other words have called Houston a birthing city and a city of healing.
How appropriate for the Azusa revival to be conceived in our city, then to bring racial healing as it crossed all ethnic and socio-economic lines as well as the gender barriers of the day. More than ever, we must cross our racial, denominational, and generational barriers to meet at the Cross of Christ, if we are going to experience healing in our land.
PREJUDICE: ROOTS, REDEMPTION, AND RECONCILIATION
Until 1787, many church worship services were not segregated geographically, although people of color were required to sit in designated back rows or in the balconies. While the segregation was rooted in racial prejudices of the day, the final straw that led to the ultimate split and separation of places of worship came about over styles of worship and tarrying in prayer.
“The AMEC grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s MEC pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation. Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, Allen led a small group who resolved to remain Methodists. In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated with Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel’s independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the AME…” (taken from official African Methodist Episcopal website).
The AME Church was officially founded in Philadelphia in 1816.
These roots of racism and segregation spread throughout the country, and over the years, many have taught that Houston missed a visitation from God by rejecting Seymour because of his color. Bills wrote, however, that Parham was so impressed by Seymour’s devotion to prayer and desire to learn that, even though the local laws and mores would not allow Seymour to sit in the same room with the class, he “pushed the local Jim Crow laws as far as possible and arranged for Seymour to attend, sitting in an adjoining room through a large open door.” Other accounts say he sat outside in front of a screen door. Bills also contended that “Parham and Seymour were already acquainted, having preached together in some Houston area churches.”
Despite the undeniable racial prejudice of his day, William Seymour was able to learn the Word of God in Houston. Some reports say that when William “Daddy” Seymour was called out of Houston to pastor in Los Angeles by a Baptist church, Parham’s class even collected an offering for him. Houston was a sending city, and herein lies some redemptive value. It is important that we today recognize the sins of the past, yet also look for God’s redemptive thread as we journey together for the future.
Even though God honored Parham’s willingness to compromise in the face of racism and used Seymour as his chosen instrument to usher in revival, segregation and prejudice still continued well into the century. In the 1950s, there were two well-known movie theatres in Houston where people of color had to go, one being the Lyons Avenue theatre in the Fifth Ward. Today that theater is a church led by Bishop Roy Kossie. Bishop Kossie was saved at a tent meeting where A.A. Allen took down the rope separating the blacks from the whites, and he later bought the Lyons Avenue theater and made it into a church. He had a dream that one day a multi-ethnic gathering of people would worship together in the very same place that had once been a symbol of separation and prejudice. Bishop Kossie, an African American who suffered under the weight of segregation and racism, chose to walk with a heart of reconciliation, and this is why today God has honored him as a father in the city. Our ministry has coordinated with Bishop Kossie’s church on more than one occasion to hold city-wide worship services with a multi-ethnic gathering of believers. Oh, how good it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity!
Reconciliation, God to God and man to man, has always been a core value of our ministry. What happened on Azusa Street was an act of reconciliation by the Holy Spirit Himself, long before the civil rights movement, as God used someone unexpected to bring a movement that ultimately impacted every race, color, and continent. According to Christian History magazine, “The 35-year-old Seymour was the unlikely ambassador of the Pentecostal message: he was the son of slaves, not a gifted speaker, lacking in social skills, had almost no formal education, and was blind in one eye.”
FLAMES OF REVIVAL
Seymour only pastored for a short time at the church he was called to serve in Los Angeles, but he had already garnered a following so they began meeting in a home on Bonnie Brae Street. The Azusa Street website says:
“One eyewitness, Emma Cotton, later reminisced about those experiences: ‘They shouted three days and nights. The people came from everywhere. By the next morning, there was no way of getting nearer the house. As the people came in they would fall under the power, and the whole city was stirred. They shouted there until the foundation of the house gave way, but no one was hurt. During those three days, there were many people who received their baptism, who had just come to see what it was. The sick were healed, and sinners were saved just as they came in.’”
Shortly thereafter, the meetings moved to an abandoned African Methodist Episcopal church on Azusa Street. “What happened at Azusa Street during the next three years was to change the course of church history,” wrote Vinson Synan in Christianity Today, adding: “Seymour dreamed that Azusa Street was creating a new kind of church, one where a common experience in the Holy Spirit tore down old walls of racial, ethnic, and denominational differences.”
On March 30, 2006, over 100 pastors and ministry leaders attended our Somebody Cares Houston Compassion Coalition/Leaders meeting at Bishop Kossie’s Church, held in commemoration of the Azusa Street Centennial. Bishop Kossie was one of three Houston pastors honored for over 50 years of service in full-time ministry, along with Pastor Joe Cantu from El Tabernaculo and Pastor Fahed Karmout from Arab Evangelical Church. Our special guest was Fred Berry, prayer officer for the Azusa Street Centennial.
In a time when many do not finish the race well, the presence of these three pastors, from three distinct elements of the body of Christ and three distinct ethnicities, spoke volumes. As I looked across the room, I was impressed with the genuine diversity and the beauty of the dynamics of the day as we witnessed a multi-generational and multi-ethnic honoring of these spiritual fathers, releasing blessing into our city. Even Bishop Kossie’s son, a minister, said, “I’ve never seen a gathering here in our church with so many leaders coming with no agenda of their own.”
A powerful anointing fell on the meeting. Each attendee had the opportunity to receive a spiritual father’s blessing in prayer from each of these leaders.
Pastor and Mrs. Karmout ministered in Jerusalem in the 1970s when the power of God fell on their churches and in the city. “It reminded us of the revival in Jerusalem,” they both said. We believe it was also the planting and watering of seeds for another revival in Houston that could touch the nations of the world.
Throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit is referenced through fire, wind, water, and oil. In the natural sense, Houston is known for each of these raw, natural resources. Houston is the energy capital of the North America (fire and oil). The Port of Houston has a sign at its entrance that reads “Gateway to the World” (water). Houston is also a major airline hub with two International Airports, and NASA has a major headquarters here (air, or wind). In addition, Houston is world renown for its medical and research centers (healing), is the fourth largest and most ethnically diverse city in the U.S., and has numerous universities in the region. Houston has been known as a city of compassion, as was displayed so clearly to the whole world in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city of New Orleans and our city opened wide our arms to receive over a quarter million new residents, destitute and devastated. People come from around the globe to Houston looking for a new beginning and healing.
Interestingly, with God’s redemptive purposes, there also come obstacles and counterfeits. Houston has the largest abortion clinic in North America, human trafficking and sex trade atrocities, and other things that are opposite of God’s redemptive plan. If Houston is to be a birthing and forerunner city, a city of life and healing and hope, then the Church must have a renewed revelation of the Work of the Cross and the Power of the Resurrection.
In closing, I quote once again from the article I published in 1995, that I believe still applies not only for the city in which I live, but for the Church in America today:
“It’s time, Houston! It’s time, Church of America! It’s time for an outpouring of the Lord that will affect all nations. Houston, with its international commerce and diversity of cultures and nationalities, literally has the potential of becoming a spiritual gateway to the world. Houston can become a spiritual airline hub of revival fire that will spread by the Wind of God’s Spirit across the nations. Let it be said, ‘From Houston, Texas to the four corners of the world…give us Houston! Give us the nations!’…
“We pray that it will be a move that is deep and wide. When the fire of God comes, fanning the flame by the wind of the Holy Spirit, it will purify and refine as the choicest gold, creating a depth of character. From that place of consecration, God can pour in the oil and the wine, bringing to fruition the next Great Awakening in the United States. When the Church, the Bride of Christ, has prepared her heart for the Lord, she will be in agreement with His Word, Character, Nature and Spirit. With a right heart and God’s authority, the Church and the Holy Spirit will proclaim to the lost and the hurting…The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come!’” (Revelation 22:17a)
The Church has a responsibility to be forerunners, pacesetters, and examples of reconciliation. May we become a coat of many colors, offered as a gift from our Heavenly Father to His Son. Holy Spirit, come!