Growing Up Pentecostal in Brooklyn 1935-1951

By Lester Hoel

Not everyone who was raised in Brooklyn by Norwegian parents was Lutheran. My parents, Julie and Johannes Hole, came to the United States in the 1920’s. My father had immigrated to the U.S. from his home in Laksevåg, Norway, a small town outside of Bergen, and had settled in the Midwest where he worked as carpenter erecting Post Office buildings. My mother, whose maiden name was Mikkelsen, lived in Bergen and went to the U.S. together with her sister, Astrid for a two-year visit. During this visit, she met my father—they fell in love and were married January 4, 1928. The early years of the marriage were happy ones. They lived in Chicago where my father had a steady job working in a piano factory since he had been trained as a cabinet maker. As with many Americans, disaster struck my family with the stock market crash in 1929 that ushered in a major economic depression. Eventually, my father was laid off from his job and tried a variety of temporary jobs, such as working in a brick making factory, but in the end he was unable to support his wife and little girl, Maureen, who was born in 1931.

The social welfare system as we know it today did not exist then (social security was started in 1933 under President Roosevelt) and my mother moved back to Norway with her daughter while my father tried to survive in the states.

Moving to Brooklyn

            They were apart about three years during which time my father moved to Brooklyn. While living there, in a hopeless and desperate economic condition he even considered suicide. During this vulnerable point in his life, he went to a church in Brooklyn and gave his life to Jesus. As many that are desperate do, he vowed he would change his life and live for Christ. After his conversion in a small Pentecostal church in Brooklyn, he found a job and then wrote to my mother in Norway that he was a new man because he had been saved from his sins. He also had a job and wanted her and the baby to come back home. So in 1934, my mother returned and they moved into a small tenement apartment on Sixth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. In February of 1935, I was born.

There is very little that I can recall from my early years. My parents were busy trying to survive now with three mouths to feed—and my mother had been ill having lost two babies in childbirth. Their comfort and support came from a small group of friends who were members of Salem Gospel Tabernacle, the only Norwegian Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, which was located on Fourth Avenue and 54th Street, a seven block walk from where we lived.

When I was a baby, there had been a kidnapping in Chicago and a nationwide search was underway for the boy. Someone had seen my mother on the sidewalk with a baby carriage became suspicious and reported her to the FBI. When the agent arrived at the door of our little apartment, my innocent mother proudly showed him in and let him see her “Lester Darling” (a name she used for me until she died at the age of 90). When told of the purpose of the visit, she asked him to return when her husband was home and, she assured the agent, all suspicion would disappear.   She was right. My father showed that gent his two pinky fingers that are markedly crooked and then showed him mine—which were exact replicas of his. There now could be no doubt who Lester’s parents were.

My father kept his promise to God and devoted himself fully to his faith and the Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn. Of course, this meant that I was expected to be engaged actively in church activities and with the same fervor and devotion. Thus my formative years growing up in Brooklyn were framed by the constraints and activities of the Norwegian Pentecostal Church. Pentecostals are devout and committed to following a literal interpretation of the Bible. For example, if the Bible says, “go into all the world to preach the Gospel” they interpret this to mean that they must work hard to secure converts (not unlike other “missionary” faiths like the Mormons). For me, this meant spending many a Saturday afternoon on the street corner of Fifth Avenue and 51st Street while my father and his friends held a meeting aimed at converting sinners. The Pentecostals absolutely believed that “we are in this world, but not of this world!” and that as a result we should avoid “earthly pleasures.”   This translated in my life as a ban forbidding activities such as dancing, going to the movies, smoking and drinking. The smoking part wasn’t too hard to handle, but not being allowed to dance or go to the movies set me apart from my classmates. I can remember sitting in another room while the 3rd grade class watched a national geographic movie and of course we never owned a television set.

(continued in next Norway Times issue).