CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When Ange-Therese Akono arrived in the U.S. two years ago, the Cameroon-born student felt overwhelmed. She knew few people and was entering an intense civil engineering master’s program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A fellow student suggested she visit Pentecostal Tabernacle, a nearby Cambridge church said to be welcoming to students like her.
“I walked in and I could feel the glory of God,” says Akono, now 23. “There were a lot of students from all over the world there … singing and praising. I’ve been coming ever since.”
For Pentecostal Tabernacle, a small historically Black church sitting in between MIT and Harvard, attracting students like Akono has rejuvenated its once struggling congregation. Just 15 years ago, membership fell to just three dozen. But now it claims more than 350 members thanks to an aggressive recruitment of immigrants and international students captivated by senior pastor Brian Greene’s sermons on social justice, immigrant rights and “restoring broken lives.”
“It’s a place where we can all be as one, no matter where we come from,” says Offiong Bassey, 25, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. “We let our guards down and got through what we need to go through.”
The change happened, Greene says, when God directed this Pentecostal church created in 1927 by Barbadian immigrants to take on a new mission after years of decline: start servicing the sojourner.
About 10 years ago, members began intense weekly prayer sessions asking God to bring in new members, or “partners,” as Greene calls them. “When the pews were empty, we would pray to the east and ask God to send people in from that direction,” remembers Greene, a long-time member who was born a few houses from the church. “But we were thinking East Cambridge … not Eastern Europe. We had no idea what God had in store for us.”
Today, a balcony once used only for storage is filled to capacity every Sunday. Energetic services are shown on closed-circuit TV in the church’s function hall for those squeezed out of the main church.
The 52-year-old Greene recently began a third “express” service on Sunday afternoons to accommodate students’ schedules and those who couldn’t get into earlier services. The church logo also was changed to include the word “welcome” in a number of different languages. Various nations’ flags hang from the walls.
Older church partners have embraced the change to a multiethnic congregation: members now hail from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, Greene says. He says the veteran congregants remember a time when the church was struggling with a small membership and a dilapidated building.
“We couldn’t get people to come in,” Greene says. “Or keep the pigeons out.”
Pentecostal Tabernacle isn’t the only church seeing revived membership because of immigrants.
In Los Angeles, the tiny New Life in Christ Church, a Black Pentecostal congregation, has reached out to Latinos as former church members move to the suburbs and Mexican immigrants move in. Pastor Elwood Carson conducts services in Spanish and English with the help of a translator. In Central Florida, Pentecostal churches also are reporting expanding membership by a diversity of immigrants from Latin America.
“Pentecostal churches are growing fast in the developing world,” says Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an associate professor of church history at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. “So, it’s not surprising to see immigrants drawn in Pentecostalism as a way for them to settle in harsh communities. It adopts to different cultures and unites diverse communities who want a direct experience with Christ.”
Worldwide, Pentecostalism has more than 250 million adherents and is one of the fastest-growing religious movements. Sanchez-Walsh says the growth is particularly strong in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Daniel Ramirez, assistant professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan, says many of those immigrants, who hailed from indigenous populations of former colonized countries, are coming to the U.S. and parts of Europe with the goal of “re-conquering for Christ.”
“It’s under the radar and blowing the minds of well-meaning church folks,” Ramirez says.
On a recent Sunday afternoon service at Pentecostal Tabernacle, Greene called on members to dance during a high energy song with beats that fused reggaeton with African music. “Give me two minutes!” he yelled. “Where are my young people?”
Emmanuel Akyeampong, a church member who teaches African history at Harvard, proudly watched. “This church rocks,” says Akyeampong, who was born in Ghana. “It’s reconciled itself to its new purpose … helping those who are passing through.”
Greene, who also serves as a bishop for a coalition of Pentecostal churches, spoke during his sermon of the power of “praying offensively.” He used the story of Jesus taking a chance to speak to a Samaritan woman by the well as an example that racial and gender rules sometimes need to be broken in the name of God.
But Greene also had another message: The church needed to raise funds for a new building. The old one was running out of space, he said, and a new building was needed so that former drug addicts and prostitutes from the area could be brought in to with worship alongside international graduate students and Ivy League-educated doctors.
“We will be breaking the rules,” Greene says. “And you won’t be able to tell the difference.”