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Pentecostal convention brings thousands to Detroit

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Dionne Preston can’t wait to join nearly 10,000 visitors expected to descend on Detroit starting this weekend to launch seven days packed with prayer clinics, singing in an international choir, passionate preaching, uplifting fellowship among believers from around the world.

The Knoxville, Tennessee, resident is attending the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World Inc.’s 100th Centennial Convention, which officially starts Sunday in the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center.

Though Preston, 25, welcomes returning to the city for the first time in years, the gathering is “an experience altogether on its own,” the licensed minister said. “All these different things make up a fantastic trip to Detroit. I’m looking forward to prayer, I’m looking forward to worship, I’m looking forward to the musicians, the preachers. I’m looking forward to it all.”

In town for the second consecutive year, the convention is the most high-profile event for what is considered the nation’s second-largest predominately African-American Pentecostal church group, which includes an estimated 1.8 million members in the United States and Canada.

It’s also the latest religious-based gathering in Metro Detroit this summer. Nearly 30,000 youths and others with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America streamed here this month for their first Youth Gathering hosted there. And in June, the National Baptist Convention, considered the country’s largest and oldest African-American religious organization, drew about 20,000 for the 110th session of its Congress of Christian Education, said Bill Bohde, the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

The meetings of the faithful flocking to the city so far this year showcase its ongoing attraction for such occasions, he said. “Historically, Detroit has done very well in the religious segment. Part of that is because of the wide diversity of religious members. … It’s not a difficult destination to get to. We have a lot of historical churches here. We have a convention center that can accommodate large groups. Because of the track record that we’ve established over many years, we seem to be a favorite for major and mid-sized religious conventions.”

Detroit also held the PAW convention in 1999, officials said. Leaders had planned to return for two consecutive years, partly due to its amenities and ties to Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, presiding head of the group and pastor at Detroit’s historic Greater Grace Temple, which has about 6,000 members.

Though somewhat unconventional, “you can get more bang for your buck” coordinating in the same city multiple years, Ellis said, adding: “Detroit was pretty good for us. People were very impressed with Detroit last year. They enjoyed the People Mover because many were staying at the Renaissance Marriott. … Being able to walk down the road, they were very impressed going to Greektown and the other places.”

Many attendees are staying close to the Marriott, where most of the convention — themed “Celebrating Our Past…Embracing our Future” — unfolds through Aug. 1.

Faith is the foundation and informs the numerous activities planned throughout the week, ranging from a health and wellness symposium to presentations on religious youth.

“The schedule is pretty packed,” said Preston, who is active with the International Pentecostal Young People’s Union. “They’ve got stuff going on from early in the morning until late at night. This is something that will literally be going on almost around the clock.”

Outreach is another aspect. Some congregations, such as Heavenly Vision Apostolic Church in Syracuse, New York, were asked to donate goods for people in need, said assistant pastor Reginald K. Williams, who is driving about six hours to Detroit with toiletries and other items his fellow churchgoers collected.

“One of the ways that we share our faith is through helping those that are less unfortunate — helping to heal a hurting humanity,” he said, adding the Pentecostals also are guided by Jesus Christ’s words in the Bible. “People are without. We imitate what our savior has done. We actively give. He said: ‘The poor you have with you always.’ … It’s okay to be generous and to be nice.”

The convention coincides with several national developments that have rocked other Christian groups across the United States. Last month, a Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage, and nine black worshippers were slain at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

While not the central focus of the convention, “those things will definitely be on our minds,” said Rod Preston, Dionne’s father, who also is attending with his wife, Dedra. “It will come up.”

Gathering Pentecostals in one place provides opportunities for fellowship, which is needed now more than ever, Ellis said.

“I think it’s very significant now because we’ve got so many social issues that are affecting the church: same-sex marriage, you also have the attacks on churches, the church burnings,” said Ellis, who also is the Pentecostal Assemblies’ district Bishop of South Carolina, where he recently attended the funeral of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. “Those kind of issues make this year very important for us because people are looking for a voice of reason from the church — such as a response to the social changes, the demographics, and how do we effectively minister in this generation.”

Ministry and upholding Scripture define the PAW, which leaders call the nation’s oldest Apostolic Pentecostal church group. Its roots are traced to the early 1900s, when revivals emerged in the United States among followers with a renewed emphasis on the Holy Spirit, then “spread throughout the whole earth; entering into every nation under heaven,” preaching the gospel as commanded in the Bible and “proclaiming the soon coming of the Lord Jesus Christ,” according to the website.

Worshippers in the Apostolic Pentecostal movement typically are distinguished by their focus on living like the 12 disciples Christ chose to establish the church — including stressing immersion baptisms in Jesus Christ’s name, joyful worship and salvation through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, said David Bernard, general superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International and president at the Urshan Graduate School of Theology in Missouri.

Bernard said his group and other affiliated organizations originated with the same movement from which PAW emerged as the earliest leader. To that end, he and 20 presiding officers of Apostolic Pentecostal entities plan to join a special worship service Thursday at Greater Grace Temple telecast on The Word Network.

“All of our organizations’ roots are intertwined. ... This will be a significant event that doesn’t happen very often,” said Bernard, who has a doctorate in theology. “Together these will represent literally millions of believers around the world. … I think it’s a powerful affirmation that God’s spirit is working in our world.”

Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc.’s 100th Centennial Convention

For information: www.pawinc.org