On a wave of emotion, the man at the front of the church broke into a language only he and his God could understand.
“Ah le ah ne al la ne,” said Bill Siordia, a worshiper at The Pentecostals of Pleasanton, a small congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area. With closed eyes and palms raised skyward, he continued in a whispered rush. “Ma ne ah ne ta la ah ka wa.”
Siordia, 44, a warehouse worker, was speaking in tongues, a form of verbal prayer scholars call glossolalia. For him ”” and a growing numbers of Christians worldwide ”” the experience is a direct means of communication with God that is a transcendent and crucial part of his faith.
“It is kind of a high,” Siordia said later, describing the most common form of speaking in tongues as an indecipherable expression of personal prayer and praise. “It is like being with the Lord. I feel that sense that everything is OK.”
This Sunday, Christians will celebrate Pentecost, when the Bible says God sent a “mighty wind” among Jesus’ disciples and they prayed in unknown languages. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit,” the Book of Acts says, “and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Though all Christians mark the day, only some speak in tongues. Those who do describe an immediate, ecstatic and personal experience of God. Those who do not have called it phony, weird and even dangerous.