"Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?' ... Some, however, made fun of them and said, 'They have had too much wine.' "
- Acts 2:1, 3-7, 13 NIV
The passage above comes from Acts, Chapter 2, and is the scripture that forms the basis for Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
Even on the first Pentecost, speaking in tongues - or "glossolalia" - was met with skepticism. Today, it is a practice that for many Americans exists in the shadowy edges of religion. It may be seen as outlandish, sensational, even hokey to some.
"People are scared of it, but it's just God being God," said Terry Garrett, pastor of Good News Church in Tupelo. "We put him in a box and say 'He doesn't do this anymore,' but nowhere in the scriptures are the spiritual gifts retracted."
Garrett's church is a non-denominational "charismatic" church. That's not to say its members are "characters;" the word "charisma" comes from the Greek word for "gift." Endorsement of the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament, which include speaking in tongues, prophecy, the casting out of demons, is what brands "charismatic" churches.
According to Garrett, there are two forms of glossolalia - speaking a divine, unearthly language, and speaking an earthly language with which the speaker is unfamiliar. Because it reaches out to others in an evangelical way, the latter form is more important, scripturally. According to the Apostle Paul, five intelligible words are better than 10,000 unknown ones.
Since becoming a pastor in 1982, Garrett has seen the gifts of the spirit first hand. He recalls an instance from his early days in the pulpit, pastoring a church in Albany, N.Y., and helping minister to the prisoners of Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in Lake Placid.
"I was working with a minister from North Carolina," Garrett said. "He went around a circle of about 15 prisoners and spoke over each man in tongues. One man who was a Russian native looked up and said, 'you were speaking fluent Russian.' "
In another occurrence, Garrett's wife, Lloyd Gray 9/6/12 what's her name? who is also a pastor, broke into Italian during a service at their church in Albany. She didn't know what language she was speaking, but an elderly Italian woman did, and was ecstatic to finally feel as if someone understood her.
"My wife kept saying, 'I don't understand Italian,' but it was enough for the woman to not feel so alone," Garrett said.
Spiritual gifts, Garrett said, are secondary evidence, physical manifestations, of salvation rooted in love. Garrett notices in I Corinthians that Paul remarks how the gifts of the spirit are worthless without love, lest the gift become a source of pride.
"Love is the essential ingredient to make sure that all gifts operate in glory to God," Garrett said, "The Word of God speaks for itself. We need to embrace the fullness of his indwelling, not put limits on it, and leave room for God to be who he is and do what he wants to do. And have faith."
For Ledentry Forster, founder and pastor of the Rock Pentecostal Apostolic Church in Plantersville, the gift of tongues works to unify followers of Christ. Forster first encountered the gift of tongues while serving in the Navy, where he received odd letters from his family describing how they had received the Holy Spirit.
Raised a Baptist, Forster thought the gifts were reserved only for the apostles. After returning home to Richmond, Miss., his sister would stay with him and read him scripture. When a tent revival came to town, Forster could hear them singing from his house.
"I thought they were a little mixed up," Forster said with a smile.
Nevertheless, he witnessed people speaking in tongues at the revival, and after studying his Bible, he invited ministers of the revival into his home.
"The spirit started coming forth, doing things beyond our control," he said, "Afterward, you feel happy and excited. It is so wonderful, you feel a love for all human beings and want to hold people close. You wish everyone could have this experience."
Forster said he came to realize that Christians are called to mimic the apostles, and that means not only believing in God's word, but trusting it. Speaking in tongues is a sign of trusting the spirit to lead an individual's heart in prayer. In addition, though the apostles received the gift in scripture, Forster reasons that since the Bible is for everyone, the gifts must be, too.
"God isn't like man," he said, "People only give to certain other people. God gives to everybody."
Forster's logic attests to the thorough racial integration of the Pentecostal church as a whole. The Pentecostal movement began in the early 1900s, when African-American preacher William Seymour started a church in downtown Los Angeles. Though Seymour's style was criticized as unorthodox and sensational, it attracted a widely diverse audience.
"We are men, women, and souls of God. By one blood we are all created," said Forster.