Witt himself tries to host A.O.A. events at Anglo megachurches for two reasons. They have fantastic sound systems, and rival Latino churches tend to view them as neutral ground. If A.O.A. happens at the biggest Hispanic church in a given city, he says, then the pastors of that city’s many small and medium-size churches often feel slighted and instruct their congregations to stay away.
Even in Kansas, several pastors told their congregants not to attend A.O.A. at City Center Church. Some may have been afraid of losing their followers to its Spanish-language congregation, which the pastors Tommy and Janeth Torres started in 2019. Others may simply have opposed the way that the Torreses conduct services. “We broke the mold,” Tommy told me. He grew up attending old-school churches, the kind with three-hour services that don’t allow women to attend wearing pants. But at City Center, their service lasts no more than 90 minutes; they use a fog machine, and women can wear what they want. The Torreses, who began as youth pastors, want to reach millennials where they are. They host small groups not just for married couples but also for single mothers, divorced women and blended families.
These are the kinds of innovations that Witt likes to support. “Stop trying to correct how your brother does his ministry,” he told the pastors that morning. “You already have your own.” Jesus, he reminded them, said you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins; the old leather breaks, and the new wine spills. “Are you already an old leather?” he asked. The boomers and Gen X-ers in the room laughed uncomfortably. Witt chuckled, too, but he wouldn’t let them go. “Eh? It’s something one has to ask oneself,” he pushed. “If you live in constant indignation, how can the new wine flow through your life?”
When Witt was the young rebel and older pastors set his cassettes and CDs on fire, he vowed to support the young Christians who came up behind him. Now he pushed the older pastors to stay young as well: to minister with joy and humor, to stop fighting with one another and to rejoice in the souls they saved, no matter how many or few they were. “Maybe you already saw that pastor whom everyone says is crazy,” he said. “Go to that pastor and bless that pastor.”
Before every A.O.A. event, Witt prays for God to give him the discernment to understand the needs of the people who come. Some places are jubilant, others weepy. Charlotte was euphoric. Kansas was reserved. He wants to be used for the Holy Spirit’s own ends. “I’m going to get out onstage and get as small as I can so God can get as big as he can,” he told me. When it works, the pastors, the songs and the prayers touch people’s deepest needs for healing, for community, for love. That Saturday morning, I watched the transmutation again when Witt instructed the leaders to pray for one another. They formed new circles of three or four around the room. Onstage, Witt sang one of his greatest songs, “Tu Fidelidad” (“Your Faithfulness”), written by Miguel Cassina. The sweet, aching ballad embraced the pastors, but now they ignored Witt. Heads bent together, they were busy with their own work. If the jet of the Latino evangelical church takes off, they will be its fuel.
Maridelis Morales Rosado is a documentary photographer and photo editor, born in Puerto Rico and based in New York City. Her practice explores themes of culture, identity and sense of place.