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The gospel of inclusion

‘Come Sunday’ premieres in Tulsa before heading to Netflix

Here’s the story:

Until 2004, Pentacostal Bishop Carlton Pearson was the head of a Higher Dimensions Family Church, a Tulsa mega-church with over 6,000 members, an ordained bishop, and a televangelist—one of just two black TV preachers beamed out across the American faith-scape.

He had enough renown that it was relatively normal to answer the phone and find the office of President Bill Clinton or George H. W. Bush on the other end, inviting him to the White House for prayer and his counsel. Pearson was also a favored son of one of the most powerful men in all of Christian culture, Oral Roberts.

Then one day he saw scenes of mass killings on TV in Rwanda and his heart sank. A thought arose: These murdered people—presumably non-Christians—according to the teachings he’d learned and espoused, could not enter heaven and were being sucked directly into hell and eternal torture.

For Pearson, it was an untenable position, impossible to square with his vision of a loving, forgiving God. He began to doubt the existence of hell as a place of eternal torment, believing instead that hell is created on Earth by human depravity and misbehavior.

Recognizing the potential for universal reconciliation, Pearson began spreading his gospel of inclusion—compassion toward all living beings and the need for us to heal ourselves and assist one another—from the pulpit. It soon cost him nearly everything: most of his followers, his TV show, and his physical church. The Joint College of African-American Bishops labeled Pearson a heretic, annulling his ordainment and ministerial legitimacy among a large segment of the global religious community.

Faithful to his cause, Pearson gathered his remaining 400 followers and started a new church, New Dimensions Worship Center, which eventually merged with All Souls Unitarian Church at East 30th Street and South Peoria Avenue.

A new and different Sunday had arrived.

Hailed as a major success at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, “Come Sunday”—a movie about Pearson’s transition during his theological crisis—will receive limited theatrical release in three cities: New York, Los Angeles—and Tulsa—before it becomes available to Netflix’s 117 million subscribers on April 13.

“Come Sunday” will be seen in progressive screenings on three separate screens at Circle Cinema on April 8, beginning at 2 p.m. (See “Full Circle” on pg. 46 for more information.)

The film is directed by Joshua Marston, known for his admired “Maria Full of Grace.” It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar nominee for “12 Years a Slave,” as Carlton Pearson. Among the outstanding cast members are Condola Rashad as Gina Pearson, Danny Glover as Pearson’s Uncle Quincy, and Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts.

The idea for the film came to screenwriter Marcus Hinchey when he heard a 2005 segment on NPR’s “This American Life” about Pearson. Hinchey then developed the script over an eight-year period.

“Marcus would call me at all hours of the day or night,” Pearson said. “I was hurting and healing at the same time, but I just completely opened up to him about my whole life and all the emotions occurring in it during that very difficult time. He would wait until I got through crying about a particular story and we’d continue. He was very sensitive and patient.”

Pearson visited the production as the film was being made and greatly admired Ejiofor’s ability to engender his essence, emotion, and pathos. 

“Some scenes they didn’t want me there; they didn’t want Chiwetel to feel uncomfortable,” Pearson said. “I told him to be himself playing me, and he relaxed. He was still Chiwetel, but he played my deep agony of soul and resolve to walk it through quite well.”

He also lauded a critical scene in the story.

“The tenderness between Oral Roberts and me was excellently portrayed by Martin Sheen,” Pearson said. “He just captured it. It was like he was channeling the energy.”

There were also moments that were difficult for Pearson to observe in the filming, ones that brought back distressing memories—the day his congregation turned away from his new vision was especially painful.

“The scene when people started walking out of the church, I couldn’t watch that being shot,” Pearson said. “I had to get up and quietly leave the set.”

“Come Sunday” shows the beginning of a movement away from traditional ways of thinking and being, something Pearson is personally concerned with.

“The old model doesn’t really need to be repaired; it needs to be replaced,” he said.

“Ultimately,” Pearson said, “I don’t want to just make a difference in the world; I want to make the world different.”

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