For two Pentecostal organizations, 11 a.m. Sunday no longer will be the most segregated hour in America.
Separated by race for nearly a century, the General Council of the Assemblies of God and the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God have agreed to a "cooperating fellowship" that their leaders promise will be a catalyst for change.
The two Assemblies of God councils on Feb. 11 signed a 12-point agreement to share resources, information and spiritual goodwill between their members while both groups remain independent.
The Rev. Thomas A. Barclay, United Pentecostal Council's international presiding elder, told a crowd at the General Council's National Office chapel in Springfield, Mo., that the agreement would usher in a new era for their churches.
"The wonderful thing about us coming together is we already have your name," he said to chuckles among the crowd. "The problem is you need to get our name, you need to get the 'united' in front of the Assemblies of God, and once we get united something is going to take place because where there is unity, there is strength."
The mostly-white General Council has more than 3 million members in the United States and more than 65 million worldwide, according to the most recent membership data from 2012.
The mostly-black United Pentecostal Council, based in Chicago, has about 30 congregations in the U.S. and 13 locations in Barbados.
Both council's boards approved the agreement, which includes allowing mutual access to ministry events, programs and youth camps; introducing United Pentecostal churches to General Council congregations; and allowing United members to join the Assemblies of God Credit Union.
The process for signing the agreement started four years ago. But as church leaders tell it, the story started in 1919, when a black man from Chicago named Alexander Howard asked the Assemblies of God — which had been founded five years earlier — if he could be a missionary for them in Liberia.
He was refused because of his race, and so Howard joined a community of New England churches that became the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God.
Mr. Barclay said he began thinking about the racial divide as a boy visiting predominantly white Chicago parishes with his father, who was a pastor.
"I thought, 'We were Pentecostal, these people are Pentecostal, why are we worshipping by ourselves? Why are they worshipping by themselves? Why can't we come together,?'" Mr. Barclay told The Washington Times. "This continued to plague me as I grew up, and as I began to develop in our denomination, I started saying, 'Heaven can't be segregated.'"
After he was elected to lead his church, Mr. Barclay wrote a letter to George O. Wood, general superintendent of the General Council, suggesting the two organizations work to unite.
"Thank you for reading that letter four years ago and making that phone call," Mr. Barclay said.
The two council leaders signed copies of the agreement to a standing ovation from General Council and United Pentecostal Council members.
Mr. Wood called Mr. Barclay "a wonderful brother" and said the unification was a way to prove to the world that "we are better together, and that ancient and dividing walls have come down and a new humanity is being displayed."
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