The House of the Spirit

Tucked away in a neighborhood near Echo Park, the mostly forgotten birthplace of the Pentecostal movement still attracts the faithful

Los Angeles Times Magazine/January 8, 2006
By Mark Kendall

Sylbrian Calimpusan learned to sleep through the late-night foot-stomping, tambourine-shaking and speaking in tongues. He got used to the unexpected visitors, such as the woman from Montana who showed up before dawn with kids in tow, asking for permission to come in and pray. "They drove so far," Calimpusan recalls. "We couldn't say 'no.' "

If growing up in the little house brought inconveniences, they were small prices to pay for the privilege of dwelling in a holy place that helped stoke his faith. Built in 1896 at 216 N. Bonnie Brae St., it is revered for its role a century ago at the ignition of the fiery, ecstatic form of Christianity known as Pentecostalism, a religious movement that may surpass the movie business as Los Angeles' most influential export.

It was at the Bonnie Brae house that believers set off a movement of exuberant worship that has grown from a scoffed-at sect to the world's fastest-growing branch of Christianity, with more than 500 million participants around the globe. And as Pentecostalism explodes in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, the fire hasn't gone out on Bonnie Brae Street.

The unremarkable one-story structure, in Historic Filipinotown near Echo Park, isn't exactly Lourdes. Some days, not a single soul shows up during visiting hours, written out by hand on a piece of paper taped to a wall near the gate in the security fence. But pilgrims do find their way, and Calimpusan, a 25-year-old financial analyst who now lives two doors down with his mother, Sol Calimpusan, expects their numbers to increase as the 100-year anniversary of the Pentecostal movement's birth approaches.

"You can feel the presence of God wherever you are," he says, standing in the uncluttered living room, its walls bare white, "but in this place, this is where the Holy Spirit fell."

That was in 1906, shortly after an African American preacher named William Seymour came to Los Angeles from Texas. Raised in a Catholic home, Seymour was drawn as an adult to a fledgling sect that stressed the need for believers to receive "baptism in the Holy Spirit," as described in the Bible's Book of Acts. His notions about speaking in tongues didn't go over well at the storefront church in L.A. that he had been asked to lead as pastor; within days of his arrival, the church kicked him out.

Before long, he was leading Bible studies in the house on Bonnie Brae Street, owned at the time by a husband and wife who were believers. And on April 9, 1906, some in Seymour's group began speaking in tongues. The word traveled fast, and worshipers flocked to the house. One day, so many gathered for a service that they spilled out onto the front porch, which collapsed under their weight.

Seeking larger quarters, Seymour and his congregation moved to a building on Azusa Street in what now is Little Tokyo. Daily services at the Apostolic Faith Mission drew hundreds of ecstatic worshipers inspired by the New Testament story of the Day of Pentecost, when believers gathered in Jerusalem after Christ's ascension to heaven and received the Holy Spirit, descending as "tongues of fire."

The press mocked the Azusa Street crowd; "Weird Babel of Tongues," declared a headline in the April 18, 1906, issue of the Los Angeles Times. "New Sect of Fanatics Is Breaking Loose." Many local Protestant church leaders opposed the new movement, not only for its enthusiastic style but also for its multiracial makeup and African American leader. "Here was this little upstart, racially integrated mission that was making all these outlandish claims about God's power and about miracles," says Cecil M. Robeck Jr., a church history professor at Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary, a Pentecostal himself and the author of the upcoming book "The Azusa Street Mission & Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement." The L.A. newspapers were "scandalized by the fact that white folk and black folk are hugging and kissing and praying together."

Over the years, the Azusa Street Mission became famous the world over, while the Bonnie Brae house went relatively unnoticed. "It's not well known," says Wallace Best, an assistant professor of African American religious studies at Harvard Divinity School.

But the Azusa Street Mission is long gone; all a visitor will find in Little Tokyo is a street sign and two plaques. It is in Historic Filipinotown that pilgrims can step on the hardwood floors of history, play the old piano or find a quiet corner to pray in one of the many rooms kept bare of furniture to give guests space to kneel and seek the unseen.

On the lined notebook paper that serves as a guest registry, there are signatures of visitors from near and far: England, El Salvador, South Gate, Lake Elsinore. What draws them? The chance to feel the presence of God, says Anne Jong of Pasadena. She struggles to explain that feeling.

"It's like when you go see a friend and they are waiting for you at the door," she says, "and you just feel delighted."

The Bonnie Brae house is owned by the Church of God in Christ and cared for by Sol Calimpusan, known as Sister Sol. Born 54 years ago in the Philippines and raised as a Catholic, she is a 5-foot-1-inch whirlwind of prayer meetings and evangelistic endeavors who is quick to offer a "hallelujah."

When she, her husband and their three sons moved into the house in 1985, it was owned by the late Art Glass, an elder in the Church of God in Christ, who had purchased it after having a vision about preserving it as museum and place for prayer. The Calimpusans had converted to Pentecostalism before immigrating to the U.S., and they were looking for a home where they could host Bible studies. The Calimpusans' spiritual duties grew as pilgrims sought out the shrine.

Early on, Sister Sol noticed a man walking around the house and praying. Strangers showed up at all hours, asking to come inside. Robeck, the Fuller Theological Seminary professor, included the house in his Pentecostal history tours. God, Sister Sol knew, had given her a mission. Her husband's death in 1994 from a heart attack was a sign that she could rely on Him for security.

There were tests. As Sister Sol remembers it, Glass suggested in 1996 that it might be time for her to leave, because he was planning a major renovation. But "there was no impression from the Lord for me to look for a place" to move, she says, "so I did not look for a place." When her landlord pressed the matter again the next year, she says she "cried out to the Lord." And Glass gave her good news: She and her sons could live in another house he owned on Bonnie Brae Street, at an affordable rent.

They have been there ever since. She doesn't spend all her days waiting for pilgrims. Recent travels took her to the Philippines, where she helped with missionary work, and to Philadelphia, where she spoke to a Baptist church. "She can't keep still," says Sylbrian. He and his two brothers, who live in the L.A. area, help support her. God always provides, Sister Sol says. "If it is his will," she says, "it is his bill."

Along the way, there have been blessed events: the woman who longed for a baby, prayed at the house and gave birth the next year; the Brazilian man whose injured knee was healed after Sister Sol felt the urge to pray for him. In fact, those drawn to Bonnie Brae Street often are looking for more than a history lesson. "When people come to that house," says Anthea Butler, an assistant professor of religion at University of Rochester who helps lead Pentecostal history tours, "they're expecting something."

Drew Marshall was, when he arrived by bus from Tacoma, Wash., last summer. A youth minister at the Church for All Nations, he escorted more than two dozen teenagers on a Southern California trip to do church volunteer work. They also visited the beach, Universal Studios, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, finally, the house on Bonnie Brae Street. "It's a place where you go to connect with God," he says.

One of his charges, 16-year-old Jessica Leisure, says that spending time in the house put her in the mind-set for a spiritual breakthrough. "I was ready to get down to business, because I knew what happened there." In a room near the back, she knelt and spoke in tongues. "I had tears all over my face."

Is it the house or the neighborhood? Within a block of the house in this slice of Historic Filipinotown, a yet-to-be gentrified jumble of blocky apartments and wood-frame homes, there are at least two Pentecostal churches. And a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation regularly rents space from the East Gate Korean Presbyterian church at the corner of Bonnie Brae and Beverly Boulevard. In this part of Los Angeles, populated by immigrants from around the world, it's easy for people "to come to Jesus," says Herman Sanchez, the pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Shalom, which rents space in a commercial building nearby. "I think the Lord is doing something here. Something different than in other areas."

Sylbrian Calimpusan is sure of it. When he's not at work at Universal Music Group—or at the gym or surfing, a new passion of his—he is on Bonnie Brae Street. Some days find him at the old piano in the house, pounding out favorite worship songs.

"I could never go away from this place. This is my hiding place of prayer," he says. "You can pour out your heart to God wherever you are, but in this place, there's just something special."

Mark Kendall is a freelance writer based in Ontario.

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