Pentecost, Pain and Purpose


It is a moment marked by Divine fire, holy wind, multiple languages (or glossolalia, depending on your theological persuasion), and a moment often regarded as the birth of the Christian Church. Pentecost is not only the longest season of the Christian liturgical calendar but one of the most prolific. It is a culmination moment in which Christ's post-ascension promise to "not leave us as orphans"  (John 14:18 ) has come to pass. And the Holy Spirit makes a profound statement: the Spirit moves across a diverse group of people with different cultures, backgrounds, geographic locations, and, as some scholars remark, even across ethnicity lines. It is the opening act of an eternity-long performance, that will end in a curtain call in which every nation, tribe, people, and language will stand together with palm branches in hand, celebrating with Christ (Revelation  7:9). For this same reason the season, however, presents a significant challenge.

From the week after Mother's Day until the week before Thanksgiving, this period of the calendar suggests restructuring, remembering, setting the church in order in preparation for Advent. We begin with Pentecost Sunday and move through the popular holidays: Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Veteran's Day.

As an African-American, and as one married to a wife from Texas, I cannot move from Memorial Day to Independence Day without resting on June 19th. Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, signifies the moment in which slaves in the state of Texas finally received their freedom in June 1865, two and one-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. It is a painful wakeup call reminding us that even though America achieved her independence on July 4, 1776, it would be 87 years before freedom was granted to African Americans, and 2.5 more years before the message made its way to those held in bondage in Texas.

The wakeup call challenges us to think about the remaining holidays, as well. The pain of wars, the devastation of innocent lives lost (those on "our side" and the opposition), the loss of property and possessions, and the trauma levied upon individuals and communities that persist for years that follow. Our parades, our fireworks, our cookouts, our days off — are built on foundations of pain. While pivotal moments in our country's history worthy of memorialization, they also levy a cultural, experiential burden upon those who live beyond the veil. It is strange and challenging for me to celebrate the Fourth of July when my grandmothers and grandfathers were not citizens, and only passed as 60% human in 1776. It is challenging and painful for so many veterans I know who suffer trauma from modern-day military engagements to celebrate the Memorial and Veteran's Day holidays. And I know many who are unemployed and underemployed who consider Labor Day an insult to their injuries.

Pan-Africanist, Kawaida philosophy reminds us that "we cannot come to the tables of community and conversation naked and in need, but must come fully clothed in our own culture [and experiences]." This is true of our holidays and celebrations, but is also true of our religious experiences, as well. Religious leaders and faith communities are charged with the task of recognizing that the Pentecost season is not simply a moment of uniformity and conscription under a "one voice" mantra, but an opportunity to allow God to move collectively through the fully clothed cultures and experiences of humanity. Unity ≠ Uniformity. Pentecost reminds us that yes, we are together, but not the same; we are a complex, complicated, mass of experiences, backgrounds, narratives, traditions, histories, hurts, (and much more) all working under the power of the Holy Spirit.