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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."
"I said, 'God, how could you call yourself a loving, sovereign God and just let them suffer like that and suck them into hell?' And that's when I thought I heard a voice say, 'Is that what you think we're doing?' I said, 'That's what I've been taught. You're sucking them into hell.'"
"The voice said, 'What would change that?' and I said, 'Well, they need to get saved. Somebody needs to preach the gospel to them.' And that voice said, 'Can't you see they're already there? That's hell. You created that.'"
It dawned on Pearson that if Jesus had died for mankind's sins, then everyone was saved. Hell was on earth, not in the afterlife. "You look at what Ted Haggard's going through right now. He was off doing drugs with another man. That's hell." This epiphany led him back to Scripture, to 1 Timothy, which says, "We have put our trust in the Living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially those who believe."
Meanwhile, his associate pastors and congregation were starting to get worried. As he introduced elements of his Gospel of Inclusion, some thought he was going too far. In a faith where demons and devils swirl around everyday life, some of the congregants thought Pearson had been possessed by Satan. Others thought his newfound acceptance of gays meant he was secretly homosexual.
Rumors led to negative press in Charisma, the most important Pentecostal publication. And as other preachers urged him to recant and apologize for overstepping his bounds, Pearson worked on his theology. He went back to the original Greek and Hebrew to defend his new beliefs. He stood firm. He started work on a book called God Is Not a Christian, which he self-published this summer.
By 2005, his 5,000-member congregation had dwindled to a few hundred. Former friends such as T.D. Jakes and Oral Roberts refused to speak up on his behalf. On New Year's Day 2006, the bank foreclosed on the Higher Dimensions building. It looked like the life of a preacher was over for him.
In his darkest hour, however, he started to make new friends. A pastor from a local Unitarian church called to offer his support. An Episcopal church downtown gave him space on Sunday afternoons. Then, there were people like Carroll, a Rice University Religious Studies professor who had grown up Pentecostal but had moved beyond fundamentalism.
Carroll went to Oral Roberts University in the 1980s and attended Higher Dimensions in the early days. "I attended Carlton's church when it was first starting in Tulsa. I've loved him for a long time — he's a great preacher, singer, theologian," she says. "He's slick, but he's not a fake."
"When I learned of this transition on his part — I had lost touch with his ministry — and then heard through the grapevine that he'd had this new revelation and had changed his theology, my heart just broke for him. I know what it means to pull your own theological rug out from under yourself."
Now Carroll is inaugurating a lecture series through the Boniuk Center called "Bridge Builders." The idea, she says, is to bring people to Houston "who in some way stand between two camps of people, two schools of thought, or who have played concrete roles in bridging a gap between conflicting entities."
Pearson, for his part, is excited about moving toward a Universalist doctrine. "I see Christianity these days as a cult following. When Jesus said, 'Take up your cross and follow me,' he was talking to 12 people. He didn't want the crowds. But they made him into a god because it was a good business."
While Unity Church has thrown open its doors to Pearson's Gospel of Inclusion, it's not clear if it will be a perfect fit. Church member Lydia Smith is excited to hear Pearson, but says that "there's a bit of a concern that he'll bring his Pentecostal stuff to the service." Unity practices silent meditation, and Pearson still shouts, sings and even speaks in tongues.
Senior pastor the Rev. Howard Caesar says that Unity has a hard time attracting people in the "backyard" of Lakewood Church, but agrees with Pearson's message. Even though they have two different approaches to church, both Caesar and Pearson are seeking a spiritual path in a world where fundamentalism only seems to be growing stronger.
"I'm frustrated," Caesar says. "People want to hear something new or different. You have to be a salesman but you don't have a product. What you have is an idea."
Unity is a Christian church, but it's still grappling with what it means to be Christian. When the church moved into a new building in 2004, Caesar wasn't sure if the wooden statue of Jesus in the old building should make the move. It's a unique statue. Jesus hovers above the congregation with his arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture, free of suffering.
For Caesar, it didn't look quite right in the new building. Lydia Smith says that, ultimately, the church decided that "they didn't want anything permanent that just represented Christianity because we're all-inclusive. Still, a lot of the traditional people were like, 'Hey, where's Jesus?'"
For the time being, they have worked out a compromise: a glowing white image of the wooden Jesus statue is projected above the stage during services. This gives them the ability to turn it off when non-Christian speakers like Deepak Chopra come to town.
When Carlton Pearson comes to Unity, there's no telling what the church will do with the Jesus image. It might just glow brighter than ever.