Speaking in tongues only one striking aspect of Christian denomination
There’s nothing like it. Thinking back to their first time, some become giddy. Others exchange glances and grins, breathe a sigh or become teary-eyed. When the Holy Spirit takes hold, each one agrees, there’s no high in the world to match it.
“It’s just like joy, unspeakable joy,” one believer says. “You can’t describe in words how great it feels.”
“Like a well of living water springing up,” the pastor adds. “It’s a phenomenal experience . . . that’s undeniable when it happens.”
Modern Pentecostalism, now accepted as one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian movements, celebrated its centennial at the end of April in Los Angeles. Experts say the Protestant fundamentalist sects, that make up Pentecostalism, combine thousands of denominations and independent churches – making accurate membership counts impossible. But up to 500 million global followers or more hold in common the requirement to repent of sins, to accept Jesus Christ as savior and be baptized in his name, and to honor the Holy Spirit as a means for conversion, blessings and healing.
For denominations such as the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), which estimates its numbers at 900,000 in the U.S. and 4 million worldwide, the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” – an individual’s personal encounter with the Lord – is manifested by speaking in tongues, which is essential to the “new birth experience.”
“The Spirit gives you the utterance,” explains the Rev. Franklin “Frank” Bounds, pastor of the UPCI’s Pentecostals of Salt Lake. “The presence of God – it doesn’t come out of the mind, it comes out of your spirit.”
On a recent Sunday morning, pre-service prayers echo from a room in an industrial multipurpose building behind Salt Lake City’s Utah State Fairpark. Inside, some members of Bounds’ 19-month-old church are moved by the spirit and pray in dissonance.
A woman lays her head on a table’s bench and sobs between cries of unintelligible phrases. A young man faces a corner, stomps his foot, pounds the wall and screams, “Lalalalala! Oh I love you, Jesus! Lalalalala! Thank you, God, I love you, Jesus.” Behind him, another follower paces, eyes and fists clenched, calling out “Hallelujah! We’ve got to have your help! We’ve got to have your strength!” Scattered between these three, a handful more kneel down, bow their heads and mutter their own spirit-filled words.
“The Bible calls it ‘unknown time,’ ” the pastor says in the hallway. “Your spirit knows what it needs from God [and] makes intercession for you.”
In a large meeting room down the hall, congregants ready for the evangelistic service. The large white cargo trailer that Bounds hauls behind his pickup from Woods Cross to twice-weekly services has been unloaded of its public-address system, keyboard, drum set, guitars, multimedia projector, podiums, altar and translation equipment. Chairs, set up for more than 100, fill as the room’s buzz begins to grow. Two church vans, packed with children – many of them Sudanese – and others without their own vehicles, pull into the parking lot. Bounds, a “metro missionary,” says he sold his big truck to help buy these vans.
UPCI, based outside St. Louis, has a dozen metro missionaries reaching out in North America, targeting areas populated by more than 1 million people. Bounds likes to call Utah “the last frontier for Pentecostals” and says he felt the burden to come here when he first visited the West eight years ago.
“No one knew what Pentecostal was,” he says.
He has a “passion for lost people,” he explains, and by leaving rural West Virginia and placing himself in an area of “1.7 million people in a 40-mile radius,” he likens the transition from “fishing in a creek . . . [to] fishing in an ocean for souls.”
Bounds’ efforts seem to be paying off. His 125 congregants, at last count, are from nine countries and include former Roman Catholics and LDS Church members. Carlton Coon Sr., UCPI’s home missions director, says of the denomination’s 900 North American churches that are less than 4 years old (there are more than 4,200 more established churches), Pentecostals of Salt Lake is the fastest-growing. Efforts are now under way to buy a building. A round of recent calls to supporters raised $30,000, Bounds says. Letters to some 4,000 pastors were sent from headquarters in the past couple of weeks and are expected to bring an additional windfall of donations.
“Once we have a building, we’ll explode,” Bounds, 51, says with a smile. “I won’t be satisfied till there’s not one sinner in Salt Lake City.”
His church’s moral standards include abstaining from tobacco, drugs, alcohol and premarital sex. The church also teaches modesty in dress and the idea that “women should look and dress like women and men should dress like men,” and stands firmly against abortion and same-sex marriage.
The two-hour Sunday service is an explosion of song and live music. Part of the Pentecostal way is to focus on the spiritual over the religious or liturgical approach, making faith accessible to the masses. It’s no coincidence that Pentecostal churches tend to draw the most diverse crowds. Bounds says there are churches filled with ex-criminals, “thieves and perverts.”
“We don’t shoot our wounded. . . . We’ve got room for everybody,” he tells the applauding crowd.
Bounds’ congregants stand, raise their hands in praise and sing together to the spirit that guides them. Some of the song verses: “I’m determined in my heart to praise him,” “Holy Spirit, you are welcome here. . . . We feel your presence near,” and “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord,” which is followed by, “Si’, Dios, si’, Dios, si’, si’, Dios.” Spanish-speaking members don headsets, through which they are fed translations. They clap along.
Among those who don’t speak English is Paula Hernandes, from Cuba, who says she was praying for a church to attend when someone from Pentecostals of Salt Lake knocked on her door. Other churchgoers share similar stories of God’s intervention. When one man’s car broke down, Bounds offered to tow him; turns out his faith in the LDS Church had broken down, too. A military couple, stationed for four years in England after living in West Virginia – where they attended Bounds’ previous church – prayed to find Bounds again, only to learn the next day that they were being transferred to Utah in time for the pastor’s first Beehive State service.
Rito Marin, 22, found his way to the church by accident. He was given an invitation, nearly two years ago, to attend a large downtown event, not knowing what he was getting into.
“You know the Delta Center?” Marin says. “I received the Holy Ghost there, at the Delta Center.”
He was the sixth member of Pentecostals of Salt Lake but the first to receive the Holy Spirit at UCPI’s 2004 General Conference held in Salt Lake City. Claudia Valencia, 33, attended a healing service at that same conference. She was scheduled for surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her liver, but says when doctors opened her up one week later, they “didn’t believe it. There was nothing there.”
Now she sings in “the ladies quartet,” which is headed up by Bounds’ wife, Debbie, who’s also on keyboards. “Once I found this church, I said that’s it, I’m staying,” Valencia recalls.
Bounds is good at rattling off numbers. He’s got to be, because he files regular reports to headquarters. Three teams knocked on “241 or 242” doors last weekend. Ninety-seven people were at last Sunday’s service. At the centennial celebration in Los Angeles, which he and Debbie attended, 1,280 received the Holy Spirit – 825 of them at Friday night’s Holy Ghost Crusade in the L.A. Coliseum. At the Delta Center’s 2004 General Conference, he baptized 123 people, going at it “over and over again.” In Ethiopia six years ago, he says 100,000 people were baptized in the spirit in 30 minutes. In his lifetime, so far, he’s witnessed 40 faith healings.
He says he’s seen “warts fall off,” a baby – diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome – enter the world healthy, and his own debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome relieved 17 years ago when a pastor anointed him with oil.
And then there are those cured of social ills. Bounds describes strippers who’ve stopped stripping, drug addicts who’ve come clean without any signs of withdrawal, and fornicators and adulterers who went on to have wonderful marriages.
Baptisms are performed in the public pool on site. On one recent Sunday, eight youth – many of whom had received the Holy Spirit at a recent children’s revival – were baptized to cheers. The group used to do the baptisms at a Best Western pool in Bountiful, Bounds says, until a hotel guest complained.
There’s a comfort to this church, the infilling of the spirit, Julie Jackson says. When the Salt Lake City resident first heard Bounds speak, she says she told him, “It was like you know me.” His response, he says, is always, “It wasn’t me, I was preaching the Word.”
Jackson, 48, grew up Catholic, and after she and her husband separated, she began searching for understanding. “Every time I would go [to Pentecostals of Salt Lake], it would touch me so much, I’d cry,” she says, her eyes welling. When she was baptized in February 2005, she says she “came out of the waters speaking in tongue. . . . It’s changed my life.”
Near the end of the service, after Bounds has completed his sermon, he beckons Debbie back up front with “C’mon to the keyboard, honey.” With soft music and song, the faithful file down to the altar – a simple bench – where they kneel, pray, feel the spirit and ask for healing. Jackson, for the second week in a row, approaches, her hands raised and shaking, the tears flowing.
She says in those moments a calm washes over her, reaffirming her every move and every feeling. “This relief, something [lifts] off of me,” she says. “And I know this is where I’m supposed to be.”