An uneasy communion
Two congregations cautiously share Neponset church
By the time Pastor Jos Tefilo Alcntara launches into his sermon, his Pentecostal congregation has worked itself into a frenzy of religious fervor, having sung, swayed, and stomped to the irresistible rhythm of the electric gospel pumped out by a band and choir at the altar.
It is a stark contrast to the hushed service of the staid group of Congregationalists who share Christ Community Church with the Pentecostalists. Hymn book in hand, eyes down, they worship as they and their forebears have for generations in the Civil War-era church on Walnut Street in Neponset. They sing, but there is no dancing, no kicking, and no electric drumming.
The two disparate groups have shared the red brick church since last March, when the Congregationalists' minister, the Rev. Stephen Donahue, invited the Pentecostalists to move from a rat-infested, unheated storefront in Jamaica Plain. Christian charity played a role in Donahue's thinking. He was also tapping into the idea that has inspired ministers at hundreds of Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches around the country to open their doors to Pentecostal groups: that sharing with the livelier denomination might rejuvenate his aging and dwindling flock.
But cohabitation has not gone smoothly at Christ Community Church. Both congregations still struggle with the tensions that have followed the commingling of two quite different churches.
The Congregationalists are mostly elderly; forming the core are descendants of immigrants from Europe who settled in the area over a century ago, although in recent years new people from Jamaica, Trinidad, and India have joined their group of about 25 worshipers. The Pentecostalists, who call their church Iglesia Oasis de Vida, are much younger. They worship in Spanish, and their services draw on Pentecostal tradition and popular culture from the Dominican, Peruvian, and Puerto Rican homelands of the bulk of their 80 congregants.
Some of the Congregationalists say they are uncomfortable sharing space with the Pentecostalists and with the loud, rambunctious style of worship they have witnessed in joint services. The Congregationalists complain about the clutter they say the Pentecostalists leave at the altar, such as the electric drum set and microphones that Oasis relies on for its exuberant service.
''We don't need all this up there," grumbled Marie Giuliana, 81, one of the Congregationalists, as she indicated an array of microphone stands and amplifiers.
The Pentecostalists are careful to express their gratitude when they talk about their move to Christ Community. But they also say the narrow pews make it hard to dance. The wine-colored carpets are dour, and the stark white walls need more color.
''If they let me . . . I would paint it . . . a color like mango. That would give it more life," said Jeannette Rodriquez, the wife of the Oasis pastor. ''And I'd put a waterfall right in the altar."
Her vision is unthinkable to the Congregationalists. They want to be more contemporary and draw younger members, Donahue said, but many of them cringe at the style of their partner congregation. Donahue winced when he heard that two teenagers had rapped about Jesus Christ at a recent Oasis service.
''You won't hear Christian rap on my car radio," he said, with a smile and a small shudder.
The situation at Christ Community is becoming increasingly common, said Wallace D. Best, who teaches a course in Pentecostalism at Harvard Divinity School.
''It's a secret to no one that Pentecostalism is captivating hearts and minds . . . and has attracted a large and vibrant and young population," he said. ''This is a tactic to increase numbers. To shun Pentecostalism is to shun growth."
Best said the host church in such an arrangement is not likely to transform into a Pentecostal congregation. But it often adopts bits of Pentecostal style, such as replacing 19th century hymns with contemporary music.
Although the arrangement is beneficial to both groups -- many Pentecostal congregations lack permanent places of worship -- tension between groups that share space is inevitable, Best said.
''Newness frightens a number of people, particularly in churches that are historic," he said. ''It's a bit unsettling, but that's part of the American story of churches. . . . They adapt, they change and they become better."
Donahue, a lanky 40-year-old who prefers suits over a minister's robes, invited Oasis after one of its members, Basilio Henriquez, a handyman, repaired a broken boiler at Christ Community last winter. Henriquez told Donahue about the $3,000 monthly rent Oasis was paying to rent the decrepit storefront.
Donahue, who worships as a Pentecostalist even though he is a minister at a Congregationalist church, was intrigued by the plight of Oasis and issued his invitation to Alcntara. The two sides signed a covenant -- with Oasis agreeing to pay $1,250 a month, including utilities -- and the new Christ Community Church was born.
Donahue says now that he knew he would be testing both folds, but he stands by his decision. ''God wanted them here," he said.
The rent Oasis pays has allowed his church to finance repairs without dipping into its savings, Donahue said, adding that his congregation has benefited from the energy Oasis brings.
He has introduced contemporary music into his services, and on one recent Sunday, one of Donahue's younger congregants performed a modern, interpretive dance, to the delight of the rest of the Congregationalists, he said.
Some of Donahue's members have accepted the newcomers and embraced their flashier style. One, Nancy Russell, 65, attends both services, praying quietly in the morning with the Congregationalists and raising her arms in exaltation in the afternoon with the Pentecostalists. ''They're all just so gracious," she said.
Other Congregationalists have yet to see the benefits of the arrangement. ''I don't like it," snapped Giuliana. ''I'm going to say it. I hope they find something and open their own church."
Every Sunday, Giuliana examines a lighted portrait of Jesus Christ next to the altar, which she dedicated to her late son, to see if it is crooked. Oasis takes down the picture during its services so that a computer-driven projector can flash lyrics on the bare white wall.
To get their groups to socialize, Alcntara and Donahue have led two joint services since the merger. The results have been mixed. Both churches have tried to adapt to the others' styles.
The Oasis members, with their exuberant singing and bigger numbers, typically take over the service, said Veronica Orozco, who translates during the joint services. But some of the Pentecostalists still feel a bit out of place.
''Most of them are not fluent in English, so they're a little bit intimidated," Orozco said. ''They also feel like they're invading someone else's space, and they don't feel like it's theirs. It's growing pains for both churches. But you cannot afford to stay with one culture anymore. . . . That's not what heaven is going to look like."
Orozco is the worship leader for Oasis; her throaty voice leads the Pentecostal service in song. She remembered during one of the joint services looking at Giuliana and other older members of the Congregationalist church and wondering if they felt overwhelmed. Some did.
''It made me feel kind of small," said Rebecca Grindle, 88, a Congregationalist. ''It isn't what I'm used to."
But Orozco said she also saw other Congregationalists look at the Pentecostalists in wonderment for a moment before they themselves were swept by the music and began to clap and sing. ''People were hungry for it," she said.
It is unclear how long the merger will last. Oasis wants a bigger church for its growing fold and the freedom to paint their walls.
''I want my own church," said Linda Antigua, 18. ''This is their church. We have to go carefully, ask permission to do everything. It's very hard."
Donahue wants Oasis to succeed and grow beyond his building. When the Pentecostalists get their own church, he said, ''I'll be the first one there, helping them paint the walls mango."
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com.