As a part of Black history month we asked our colleagues to write a piece celebrating the life and achievements of a black or brown figure (past of present) who has inspired them. This week our CEO Paul Anderson-Walsh shares his article on Carlton Pearson.
I have a faith background. At 35 years old I gave up a successful Practice to study theology and subsequently became the principal of the largest Pentecostal Bible School in Europe. I still bear the emotional scars from my experience with the God will love you “if” kind of performance-based Christianity. The person I’ve chosen to profile is Carlton Pearson. He has far more scar tissue, far more grace and gave up more than I could ever imagine embracing the truth we both share. Carlton Pearson is a progressive spiritual teacher who elegantly styles himself as being a voice of reason in a world of extremes.
Like Carlton Pearson, the time came for me when I could not reconcile the God I sensed was God, i.e., the inclusive, everyone’s included God with an exclusive and excluding god. It was clear to me that if I was to follow the conviction of my heart then it would mean that I would have to put my belonging status at risk and tear down what I had spent some time cultivating. It would mean being ‘orphaned’ again. I was by any measure a “successful career Christian.”
Carlton Pearson’s story came to the fore about the time I had come into real crisis. it gave me the courage and my conviction. For that he is my BHM hero. I owe him a debt of unpayable gratitude.
It saddens me to say that much of the evangelical Christian church is subtlety but deeply racist, it is for example unusual to see a Black pastor lead a diverse church. Too often churches are segregated or shall we say designated as black or white. But Carlton Pearson was an anomaly. He led an ethnically diverse community. He was mentored by a man named Oral Roberts. For those of you familiar with this world he was the evangelical pope of his day. He dubbed Carlton his “black son.”
Carlton was set. In 1981 he started a church in Tulsa, which grew to a membership of 5000. His annual Azusa conference, held on the Campus of the Oral Roberts University, saw attendance swell as high as some 50,000 during the week-long event. A Stellar Award-winning vocalist, Pearson has sold into the millions of CDs and videos with his recording contracts with Warner Brothers, Atlantic Records, and Tommy Boy and has also been nominated for the Dove Award.
In church circles Carlton Pearson was a rock star but then he came to the same truth that I arrived at some years later namely that if God is love then that love is inclusive. If God’s love was for all without exception or expectation, then it is universal. This expanded consciousness inevitably signalled an unravelling. To embrace this would surely be to lose everything. In his own words...
And so it was for Carlton Pearson that one Sunday morning everything changed when he shared with his mega church congregation that because of Christ, no soul will spend eternity in hell. This controversial doctrine polarized faith communities all over the world. Bishop Pearson wasn't prepared for the rejection and stones aimed at him. He lost everything: his influence, his church, his friends, and finances. In a short period of time, one of the church's most beloved went from hero to zero seemingly overnight and became the most prominently titled heretic of his generation.
The story of his life was made into a film, the Netflix original movie "Come Sunday" highlighting his personal story about the shift in his ministry to Radical Inclusion insisting that Christians are not the only people who will experience eternal life. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018 and is now available on Netflix.
Today Carlton serves and has served on the boards of several charitable and humanitarian organizations, including the Interfaith Alliance, an organization which celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights, promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy, and uniting diverse voices to challenge extremism; the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) of Washington DC, an organization promoting the civil rights of America's GLBTQ community; The Fellowship of Affirming Churches and Ministries (TFCAC); and is on the adjunct pastoral staff of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has authored a variety of books and booklets, two published by Simon and Schuster.
There comes a point where each of us must ask and answer the question that St. Paul confronted: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
I want to pay tribute to Carlton Pearson for the truth is that it takes character and conviction to be able to say and mean all I once held dear I count as loss for the surpassing knowledge of knowing The Christ.