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Global Pentecostal Renaissance? Reflections on Pentecostalism, Culture, and Higher Education, by Jeff Hittenberger

Pneuma Review Spring 2013


Not long ago, I attended Commencement exercises at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. I was there to see a student named Kofi receive his law degree and to celebrate with his mother, Afi.1

Afi came to the United States from Togo with her husband more than twenty years ago so they could pursue graduate studies in Los Angeles. Her husband and I were classmates at the University of Southern California and they invited me to join them for a home-cooked African dinner. We became close friends. They had three children when they came from Togo, and two more were born after their arrival. Their fifth child, Mensah, has Down Syndrome.

In 1990, when Mensah was not yet a year old, Afi’s husband completed his dissertation and traveled to Togo, stating his intention to get things ready for his family’s reentry home. He never returned. Afi did everything in her power to find him, enlisting the support of friends to write letters and seek him out, but it became increasingly clear that he had abandoned his family.

Prioritizing the needs of her children, Afi determined that she would stay in Los Angeles in order to find the support and education for Mensah that she would not be able to find in Togo. With five children ages thirteen and younger, living in an apartment in Los Angeles, Afi called on God to help her.

The journey of the next seventeen years was marked by hardships beyond description, including heart problems, battles with the Los Angeles Unified School District, immigration hearings, threatened deportation, and all the issues faced by children and youth coming of age in urban America.

Afi speaks to God with the same passion and honesty as the Psalmist David: “My children are Your children. Do not let them die. Don’t abandon us, as my husband did. We trust in You. Deliver us and bless us and make us a blessing!”

Seventeen years after she was abandoned by her husband, Afi and her children and grandchildren watched Kofi walk across the stage, shake hands with the Dean of the Law School, and receive his Juris Doctor degree. God had answered. Kofi is not the only success story in this family. Afi’s eldest daughter is a nurse. Her second daughter graduated from medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, and is now a surgeon. The son who follows Kofi graduated from an Ivy League university and is now in medical school. Mensah is now in his twenties and is thriving.

Afi embodies, for me, a kind of “Global Pentecostal Renaissance.” She is a woman of profound and unshakable faith. She believes that God is the highest purpose of life, without whom nothing is possible. She sees visions. She does battle in spiritual realms. She prays in tongues. She does not doubt that Satan is out to destroy her and her family and that God is her shield and refuge. Not only does God defend her, He goes on the offensive and leads her to victory over death, hell, and the grave. She can tell you stories of miracles without which she would be dead and her family would be lost.

Afi is also a woman of learning. She earned a Ph.D. in French at UCLA. She teaches at a community college. She demanded that her children take advantage of every educational opportunity and would not take “no” for an answer. When Kofi was fourteen, he decided he wasn’t going to go to school any more. She called the police and said, “I need you to make my son go to school.” He relented. She refused to let her children be crippled by self-pity related to their father’s departure. Her faith and her commitment to education are inextricably linked.

Pentecostal Christianity, at its best, integrates together a passion for God with a passion for learning and a passion for loving service.

As an African, Afi embodies the trends in global Christianity in general and global Pentecostalism in particular. Her faith is not bound by any particular culture or national agenda, but draws on cultures from around the world. She is trilingual and teaches a language at the college level that is not even her first language. She finds ways to serve redemptively, whether as a professor in a community college classroom, an advocate for Mensah in public school, or a Christian neighbor praying with a friend in need.

Pentecostal Christianity, at its best, looks like Afi, integrating a passion for God with a passion for learning and a passion for loving service.

In this extended reflective essay, I contemplate the potential of Pentecostalism as a global learning movement and the potential of Pentecostal higher education to be a catalyst for a Global Pentecostal Renaissance.2

Global Pentecostal Renaissance is here defined as a Spirit-empowered awakening among Christians worldwide that integrates a passion for God, a passion for learning and creative expression, and a passion for redemptive service and mission.3 In order to explore this idea, the study is organized around four essential questions: What are Pentecostal attitudes toward learning? What internal resources does Pentecostalism have that make it a learning movement (and what are some possible impediments)? What Biblical and historical precedents are there for a Global Pentecostal Renaissance? How might Pentecostal higher education contribute to a Global Pentecostal Renaissance?

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Category: Living the Faith, Pneuma Review, Spring 2013

About the Author: Jeff Hittenberger, Ph.D. (University of Southern California), serves as Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at Vanguard University. He previously served as Director of Graduate Studies at Evangel University and as Dean of the School of Education at Vanguard University. He served as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at Mohamed V University in Rabat, Morocco, has served as a consultant and researcher in Cameroon, Mali, South Africa, Israel, and Haiti.

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