ST. LOUIS (RNS) When is a church convention more than just another church convention? When 40,000 saints from the Church of God in Christ come marching in and relocate the year’s largest convention from one cash-strapped city to another.
For the first time in more than a century, the Church of God in Christ—the nation’s largest African-American Pentecostal denomination—is holding its annual Holy Convocation outside of its hometown of Memphis, Tenn.

Last year, church officials announced that St. Louis had offered them $1 million more in incentives than Memphis to move the convocation. Leaders agreed to a three-year deal that will move the conference to St. Louis through 2012.

Across nine days (through Nov. 16), COGIC delegates will occupy 25,000 hotel rooms and bring upward of $30 million to the city, according to the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission.

The commission was aggressive last year in its pursuit of the event, offering meal discounts, free hotel parking and use of all 502,000 square feet at the America’s Center Convention Center and Edward Jones Dome.

“Having them in town during this economic downturn speaks volumes for St. Louis city,” said Stephanie Monroe, national convention sales manager. “This is a transition for the saints, and it’s important that we treat them as first-time guests and welcome them with open arms.”

COGIC’s Presiding Bishop, Charles Blake, said the decision to move the convocation out of Memphis—where the church has its headquarters—after 102 years was both financial and logistical.

“St. Louis is a tremendous city in terms of its capacity to accommodate us—from the hotels to the America’s Center to transportation options,” Blake said.

The move was bad news for businesses in Memphis, where the $25 million brought in by the convocation represented the city’s largest convention of the year.

“From a historical standpoint, this was a pretty significant blow to Memphis,” said Otis Sanford, editor for opinion and editorials at the Commercial Appeal, the city’s daily newspaper.

The Church of God in Christ counts 6.5 million members, making it one of the largest Christian denominations in the country. The church says it has more than 12,000 congregations in the United States.

Pentecostalism began at a 1906 street revival in Los Angeles and is best know for its emphasis on “gifts of the spirit,” including healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues.

Over the last 50 years, the rituals once ridiculed by other Christians have helped Pentecostalism and related charismatic groups become the fastest-growing Christian movement, making up an estimated one-quarter of the world’s Christian believers.

A former Baptist pastor, the Rev. Charles Mason, founded the Church of God in Christ in 1907 in Memphis after attending a Los Angeles revival. He dedicated 20 days in the fall as a meeting time for the church’s members.

“This segment of the year was chosen because the majority of the communicants of the church lived in farming districts of Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas,” according to the church’s website. “By this time of the year, they had sufficient provisions and financial resources from the harvesting of their crops, to enable them to attend and support a national meeting.”

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