Remembering Jesse Miranda and the Complicated History of Latino Pentecostals

Jesse Miranda speaks at Biola University in 2013. Video screenshot

Article by Arlene Sanchez-Walsh. Arlene Sanchez-Walsh is a professor of religious studies at Asuza Pacific University and author of “Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

If you wanted to know about the history of Latinx Pentecostals on the borderlands, you had to talk to Jesse Miranda.

When he agreed to be interviewed for my dissertation over 20 years ago, I approached Miranda with some caution. I thought — wrongly — that he was not going to be open to my critical take on Latinx Pentecostals.

He knew all about the complicated and sometimes troubling history of Latinx converts to Pentecostalism. He had lived through much of it and was willing to share what he knew.

Miranda, who died Friday (July 12), was well known in the Assemblies of God and was the founder of Alianza de Ministerios Evangélicos Nacionales or AMEN, one of the first national leadership organizations for Latinx Protestants in the nation.

When I interviewed him, he was teaching at Azusa Pacific University.

My dissertation was going to take a critical look at the historic role of Latinx in Pentecostalism, focusing on the desire for Latinx converts to lose their ethnic identity as a condition of religious conversion.

It was not going to be a triumphant look at borderlands missions or praise the “great men and women” of the movement. So I wondered if Jesse was going to be open to my line of questioning.

He was. And he wanted to tell his story.

Sitting in his office, I was soon swept up in a history of Latinx Pentecostalism told by a warm, funny, grandfatherly figure who connected the earliest era of U.S. Latinx Pentecostalism with the present day.

For the next couple of hours, Jesse shared his testimonio, his conversion story. It was a great story — since Pentecostal conversion stories are among the best I’ve ever heard. And, of course, as a good Pentecostal, he asked me about my story. Unfortunately, my story was not as exciting.

Jesse was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of five kids born to his father, a lumber mill worker originally from Mexico, and his mother, a New Mexican of Spanish descent. It was his mother’s healing testimony, coupled with the concern that the local Pentecostal church exhibited toward Jesse’s family, that convinced him to convert at age 8.

Many of the Pentecostal missionaries I was writing about were people that Jesse had met in his early years.

When I found a treasure trove of archival materials at the Latin American Bible Institute, Jesse shared stories of his years teaching there from the late 1950s to the 1970s.

He grew wistful describing the culture of LABI, small town-like, with a deep sense of camaraderie, removed from the ongoing problems of the world. It was a refuge for budding Latinx Pentecostal missionaries and pastors.

He noted how small the school was and how small his community was in general. While I appreciated Jesse’s LABI narrative, I found it too nostalgic, too romanticized.

It couldn’t have been idyllic. After all, he taught there in the 1960s. What about civil rights? Vietnam? The Chicano movement?

In his retelling, most if not all of these historical tidal waves seem to have bypassed LABI entirely. It was this issue, this seemingly cloistered life that most Pentecostals lived throughout this most tumultuous of decades that brought me around to the issue of race and ethnicity.

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Source: Religion News Service