HENRY COUNTY, Illinois — When Kiva Kelly arrived on the farm here that a Chicago-based Pentecostal church runs as a retreat for drug addicts and prostitutes, she was worried about serpents — and not the religiously symbolic kind.
“I heard there’s a really, really big snake here,” the 46-year-old said as she eyed the surrounding corn fields nervously.
Pastor Rico Altiery, the ex-convict and former gang member from Chicago’s West Side who oversees the farm and was showing Kelly and four other new women around, was frank. “There’s a lot of them,” he said.
But Altiery insisted Kelly and the others were safer on the farm — the centerpiece of the church’s effort to help the women turn their lives around — than they were back home.
“In Chicago it’s too easy to hop on a bus and get some crack,” Altiery said. “If you don’t have a 24-hour watch, the devil is going to get through.”
Pentecostalism, a lively evangelical Christian movement that took off a century ago in Los Angeles, is one of the world’s fastest-growing sects, with dedicated followings in places as far-flung as Brazil, Kenya and South Korea.
“It may be the single most dynamic religious movement in the world, not just within Christianity,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
It preaches the power of a direct personal experience with God, believes in the existence of Satan and teaches that believers have an obligation to seek out, confront and destroy the devil and bring back anyone he has ensnared.
Its name comes from the Pentecost, the Biblical event where God visited the Apostles as the Holy Spirit and filled them with supernatural powers, including the gift of tongues.
EVANGELICALS ON STEROIDS
How did a boisterous religious movement born in a U.S. street revival go on to claim a global following, according to the World Christian Database, of 500 million people?
Several factors, including the movement’s highly independent congregations and emphasis on transforming their local communities, have helped it gain converts, especially among the world’s urban poor.
“Sometimes I refer to them as evangelicals on steroids,” Lugo said. “People associate evangelicals with conversion. But (with Pentecostals) there is this emphasis on heavy-duty transformation with a very strong emotional element. They insist on the total transformation of people.”
New Life Covenant, the Chicago-based church that runs the farm here, is in many ways a study of the Pentecostal movement in miniature.
Like the movement itself, New Life Covenant is fast-growing. Six years ago, the congregation — located in Chicago’s tough Humboldt Park neighborhood — had slightly more than 100 worshipers. Today, the church has grown to more than 4,000 members, many of them poor Latino immigrants who have settled in Humboldt Park.
The church is involved in a wide array of social ministries — including running a food bank for a nearby public housing project.
Its most dramatic ministry is an 18-month-long program, New Life For Women, that aims to help female drug addicts and prostitutes turn their lives around.
It centers on the church farm, where the women spend five months doing chores and learning Scripture away from the city.
The church doesn’t wait for troubled women to come through its doors. Every Friday night a group of women, some of them former addicts, drive around the city’s West Side in a church-owned motor home. On corners where even police officers travel in groups, the women park their vehicle and hit the streets.
“These are scary streets,” says Luz Rivera, a 42-year-old former heroin addict. “But if I could come down here to buy drugs, I can come down here for God.”
In its five years of operation, the farm has been a temporary home to nearly 100 women from Chicago — a quarter of whom have successfully graduated, according to the church. Half a dozen of those graduates have gone on to play important roles inside New Life Covenant.
“More than any other religion, Pentecostalism says, ‘Here you are one moment a drug addict. Three months from now, you could be ministering to the church from the pulpit,'” said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
“It’s transformational with a capital T.”