A white tent in front of the entrance to Ecclesia Church International signals that something more than an ordinary church service is taking place inside. Was it a reception for royalty from Africa? A Visit from the mayor? A tent revival? A wedding?
It is, in fact, an international conference on the supernatural.
Since 1994, the meeting, called the International Gathering of Reformers, occurs the third week of June for three days at Ecclesia Church, pastored by Apostle John Tetsola and his wife Vickie in the Van Nest area of the Bronx. This year's theme on the supernatural has amassed about 180 visitors to the Bronx.
It might be strange to hear that the Bronx is an epicenter for religious meetings, but the county in the last two decades has experienced significant changes. No longer single-handedly identified with waves of arson, poverty, and crime, which plagued the borough during the 60s to early 80s (the Van Nest area during 1964 was featured in “Five Corners,” a movie about rape and murder), a softer side of the Bronx has emerged after a drop in violent crimes and an enrichment of its multiculturalism. The change is so noticeable that some residents point to God as the reason for the Bronx revival.
For Gregory Clark, a member of Ecclesia since 1995, the supernatural is a palpable reality that is reflected in the changes in his neighborhood.
He observes that before Ecclesia began as a church on Bronxdale Avenue, more evil than good reigned. Their church building formerly housed an illegal business operated by gangs. “This place used to be a chop shop for stolen cars,” Clark noted. “They disassembled cars here and resold the parts. People used to drag race up and down this street.”
Ecclesia brought a moral atmosphere that it says played a role in changing the quality of life in Van Nest. People living the “lifestyle of the supernatural” gathered in greater numbers in the area, Clark says. As the moral culture of Van Nest changed, the results were visible. “When we came here, that stopped.”
Clark, who sits on Ecclesia's Board of Trustees, defines the supernatural as the way in which “God moves.” He laments that most church attenders are only physically present in the house of the Lord each week, but lack a direct personal relationship with their Creator. That is something Ecclesia wishes to change. The conference organizers say that the experience of God will create moral individuals with strength to standup for what is right.
The trustee explains that the conference hopes to spread the idea of a supernatural lifestyle. “We have to give them the perspective of that relationship with God and establish a lifestyle of the supernatural through tasting, prayer, studying the Bible, and reading books that teach on the Bible.” By tasting the supernatural, he means that people can feel the tangible presence of something higher than themselves.
Each participant at the conference is taking one of the four workshops. Dana Milteer, 37, is teaching a workshop on “the spiritual gifts that activate the supernatural.” She explains to the audience of about 30 people that the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, knowledge, faith, prophecy, discerning of spirits, healings, miracles, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.
Milteer emphasizes to the audience that these gifts should emerge into everyday life as a result of a deep relation to God. “The supernatural is found in a relationship and walk with God.” People in the audience raise their hands in spiritual agreement and nod. Some yell out “Amen.” Then he pauses for a moment to hint at an ominous problem. He interjects a warning, “It's also the relationship between the satanic and human spirit.” According to the teacher, the supernatural lifestyle exists in the tension between choosing good and evil, and the solution to cultivate the good is to walk with God.
An interest in spiritual warfare brought Eric Yip from Glad Tidings Church in Singapore to the conference. Last April, Yip went on an education mission to Sumatra, Indonesia to teach in a church that is part of the Gereja Pantekosta Isa Almasih network, an organization of Pentecostal churches in Indonesia. He faced many questions of spiritual warfare on his trip. Today, he is sharing some of the answers that he learned to the question, “Can Christians be demonized?”
Some of the conference attenders remark that spiritual warfare is still being fought in the Van Nest area. Van Nest has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the community district. About 20% of the households live under the poverty level. In addition, crime in Van Nest is dropping at a slower rate than in the rest of the Bronx, which has galvanized residents to start the Van Nest Neighborhood Alliance.
Lilly Velasquez, 82, who co-pastors Iglesia Evangelio De Amor with her husband a few blocks away from Ecclesia, says, “Around here at night, it's empty. You don't walk outside after 9:30pm.”
Conferees hope that the church will next conquer the unruliness of the midnight hour in the neighborhood.
On September 20-21, 2013 the church will host the “Heaven on Earth Conference” on supernatural dance ministry.