I believe in the grace of marginality. Whether in the arts or religion, marginality is often a place of strength, empowerment and scandalous beauty. It appears that the Creator Spirit finds life in the center too managed and controlled for her taste. Rather, she seems to prefer the margins where she is free to create new worlds that cannot be imagined or permitted in the center.
My own religious identity is Pentecostal. This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the riotous Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, which is known as the birthplace of our movement. The people who attended the meetings led by a former slave understood the revival as signaling the beginning of a new era. This era was one which abolished the color line, empowered women as well as men to be leaders and liberated the poor. The participants of the Asusa Street revival clearly celebrated the power of marginality, often dancing the night away.
As a fourth generation Pentecostal, the story of Azusa Street Mission is a reminder of my own marginal identity. It marks what theologian Harvey Cox calls the “heart of our movement.” I need this reminder. As an educated, middle class seminary professor I have a tendency to avoid the margins and seek approval in the mainstream.
Perhaps to counter my mainstreaming tendencies, I’ve developed a somewhat morbid fascination with the newspaper accounts of the Azusa Street meetings. They reveal the distain good, self respecting people felt for the intense “negro worship” taking place in Los Angeles.
As I write this essay I have beside me a cartoon from the Los Angeles “Evening News” dated June 23, 1906. Underneath the title “Summer Solstice Sees Strenuous Sects Sashaying,” are depictions of “holy jumpers” shouting “glory,” a woman speaking in tongues, and “holy rollers” on the floor shouting “sweet speerit!”
This “sweet speerit” seemed to grace Azusa Street with her wild ways, creating visions of racial equality and empowering poor people to believe that God thinks they are important. She even gave the poor a new language: babble. Imagine this: the educated and the illiterate speaking the same heavenly language. That is why I love the sound of glossolalia, which like jazz, mocks the rationalism of the Enlightenment and creates zones that liberate people from the tyranny of the objective and rational.
If the Azusa Street story is not enough to call me back to the margins, I have the personal story of my great-grandmother Sally McNeely, who in 1907 shouted and danced her way our of her local Methodist church. (They kicked her out.) Undeterred by her new marginality she organized a Pentecostal congregation.
During my childhood my great grandmother’s portrait hung in the vestibule of our country church. This portrait was our icon. Like all icons, her image served as a reminder of our identity and offered a visual portal into a mysterious realm of the Spirit. In the sacred space of this church I first felt God’s hand on my life calling me into a marginal wonderland.
In my ecumenical journeys I catch glimpses of a more sedate and safe religious existence, and I must admit that I often long to be mainline. At these times I can see myself preaching the lectionary, singing taize choruses and attending wine and cheese receptions. I envision myself meditating quietly as I walk a neatly laid out labyrinth.
In these ecumenical journeys I have received my fair share of ribbing about tele-evalgelists, sexual scandals and the like. As one such occasion, a Roman Catholic Cardinal leaned across the table and with tears in his eyes said softly, “don’t let them get to you Cheryl. We all have our scandals.” The Cardinal’s willingness to share my burden of marginality made a home for me in the center. He is now my friend.
Yes, there are moments when I long to be in the center, free from all the crazies of the margins. But, on these occasions I remind myself that the Creator Spirit hides in the margins. I don’t want to miss her next party.
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