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The Rev. Carlton Pearson was also a star in evangelical circles. He had his own TV show and a megachurch of 5,000 members who tithed hundreds of thousands of dollars every month. Pearson prayed with presidents, sold Grammy-winning gospel records and guest-preached with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
But then, just when it seemed like Pearson had ascended the mountaintop, he lost it all. He didn't get caught with a prostitute. He wasn't smoking crack. He didn't embezzle money. For his peers in the evangelical world, Pearson's sin was much greater: He questioned the core beliefs of fundamentalism, including the existence of hell and the literal truth of the Bible.
When Pearson comes to Houston on September 26, he will be preaching a new gospel that cuts against the grain of megachurch Christianity. He calls it the "Gospel of Inclusion," and it might make even mainstream churchgoers a little uneasy. For his sponsors at Rice University's Boniuk Center for Religious Tolerance and at Unity Church, though, Pearson's trip to Houston is a chance to build a bridge between evangelicals and secular nonbelievers.
Jill Carroll, an ex-evangelical and Executive Director of the Boniuk Center, hopes that even those who condemn Pearson will turn out. "I hope others will come, especially those who are alarmed by his message. Even if they think he's demon-influenced — they are Pentecostal, remember — I wish for them to come, just to check it out, see what they think."
Pearson started preaching as a teenager in a storefront church in a San Diego ghetto. He was raised in the Pentecostal-Holiness tradition, where demons lurked around every corner. He cast out his first demon at 16 years old. The demon had possessed his girlfriend. "After that," he says, "I became a hero because Carlton Pearson cast the devil out three nights in a row."
When it came time for college, Pearson went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. It was the early 1970s and Roberts was one of the most recognizable preachers in America. Roberts was a half-Cherokee minister who had emerged out of rural Oklahoma, where Pentecostals were known for snake handling, faith healing and speaking in tongues. Roberts took the denomination into the mainstream with slick TV specials on NBC.
Roberts preached that God wanted Christians to be successful in this life. "Plant a seed and it will grow," was one of his favorite sayings.
All of this resonated with young Pearson, whom Roberts liked to call "his black son." Roberts liked Pearson's ability to reach out to black and white audiences, so he gave Pearson his full support in the early 1980s when he started his own church, Higher Dimensions.
Higher Dimensions was a rarity in those days. Although it was located on the white side of town, it had a black pastor and a completely integrated congregation. Still, the theology was pretty conventional. For Pearson, there was a literal hell and it was populated by people who didn't accept Christ: gays, Unitarians, Jews and other nonbelievers.
When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Pearson appeared on Larry King Live. By this time, Pearson had become a bishop and a well-known figure on the televangelist circuit. Asked what Oklahomans should do, Pearson said, "I believe our president and governor should call the people together in prayer. If we could go back to praying in the streets and praying in the schools and calling on the name of the Lord, a lot of this stuff [terrorism] could be avoided."
Pearson says his statement was a typical reaction by a fearful preacher who didn't know whom to blame for the tragedy. "The only way we could deduce what had happened was to say, 'The gods must be ticked. How do we appease this angry deity? What should I do? We're scared to heck. It couldn't be God. It's us.' It's a very typical response. The God we've been preaching is a terrorist. He's an executioner."
In the late 1990s, around the same time Joel Osteen was taking over Lakewood Church in Houston and creating his own twist on Roberts's Prosperity Gospel, Pearson started tweaking his message. Like Osteen, Pearson smoothed the hellfire out of his sermons. At the time, it seemed like the trendy thing to do.
He had no idea that his life's work was about "to go up in smoke," as he says. "Every preacher's biggest fear is whether the congregation will come back next week. It was like I had grown a big alligator and wondered how I was going to feed it."
He started rethinking the central belief of his faith: that everyone had to be reborn in Christ in order to go to heaven. One night, he watched the evening news and saw refugees from Rwanda returning to their homes. It was then that he had a conversation with God that changed his life.
"I was sitting there with my plate of food and my fat-faced baby watching the evening news. The Hutus and Tutsis were returning from Rwanda. I'm watching these little kids with their swollen bellies. Their skin is stretched tight against their skeletal remains. Their hair is red from malnutrition. They've got flies in the corners of the eyes and mouths. They reach for their mothers' breast and it looks like a little pencil hanging down. There's no milk."