It’s a story as old as scripture.
A holy man has it all: wonderful family, respect of his community, a comfortable life. Then he gets a divine revelation, a change of faith. No one believes him. He falls hard and loses everything. Abram in the Hebrew Bible. Martin Luther. Michael Servetus. John Murray. And now Carlton Pearson.
Come Sunday, a new Netflix film, tells the story of the Rev. Carlton Pearson, former evangelical megastar and modern-day heretic—who is now affiliate minister at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s largest congregation, All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he preaches twice a month.
The film starts in the 1990s. Pearson is a Pentecostal bishop exhausted by a schedule of preaching around the country, spiritually advising presidents, and packing a 12,800-seat revival auditorium five nights straight. He wants to sleep on a plane home, but he’s bound by the commandment to save every soul he meets from hell. Wearily, he strikes up a conversation about Jesus with his seatmate.
Then one night, watching coverage of the Rwandan genocide, he has a talk with God. As Pearson tells it, God corrects him: those dying Rwandans, who had never heard of or accepted Jesus, weren’t going to hell. There is no hell. Everyone—homosexuals, Jews, Muslims—is already saved.
Produced by Ira Glass, host of This American Life, which first told the story of Pearson’s rise and fall in an hourlong radio show back in 2005, Come Sunday is part of Netflix’s outreach to a churchgoing audience. It’s brought in A-list actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of 12 Years a Slave, plays Pearson, who led the charismatic megachurch called Higher Dimensions that brought 5,000 black and white worshipers together each week—unheard of in segregated Tulsa. Ejiofor nails Pearson’s charm, his penchant for bling, and his emotional and funny preaching style: his command of biblical chapter and verse, his love of alliterative rhyme (“You have been anointed and appointed to love”), and his gorgeous baritone voice that can at any moment break into song, backed up by a gospel choir and band.
Martin Sheen plays the Rev. Oral Roberts, the famed televangelist known for healing people by laying on hands. Jason Segel plays Henry, a white minister and friend who cofounded Higher Dimensions. Sheen and Segel bring compassion and love to scenes where they worry that their friend has been led astray by the devil and that he’s leading people to hell. We feel their struggles and self-doubt. Roberts, who called Pearson “my black son,” reveals his own pain over his gay son Ronnie—who attended All Souls for a while and eventually committed suicide—and his son Richard, who was accused of embezzling from Oral Roberts University.
The scenes feel real, the characters complex. We love Pearson for sticking to his convictions even though he loses everything, but he keeps tripping over his own ego and lacks sensitivity to the people around him. We feel that Oral and Henry really love him, too, even as they cut him off.
Pearson tells me that he spent hundreds of hours over eight years talking with screenwriter Marcus Hinchey “all hours of the day and night. I pretty much undressed emotionally in front of him.”
The movie is churchy, in a good way. It captures what one Higher Dimensions member has called “bucking and shouting and getting our praise on,” with rocking gospel that makes you want to dance and sing in front of your screen. It also lifts the veil after Sunday-morning showtime is over, zooming in on the all-too-human, even irreverent ways ministers talk to one another. It shines a light on the tension between an unhappy minister’s wife and the disorganized single mother who is devoted to her husband as his staff assistant and follower.
Pearson’s story was little known outside the evangelical world until a reporter, Russell Cobb, told it for This American Life. Cobb’s mother, who worked at All Souls at the time, had sent him a clipping from the Tulsa World. Ira Glass says the radio show’s stories generate interest from film producers all the time, but most go nowhere. Come Sunday is the fourth This American Life story to make it to screen, and it took more than seven years and three directors. The film was expensive, with hundreds of extras in 1990s period costumes, and traditional movie studios were wary of backlash.
“To their credit, Netflix saw the story the way we did,” Glass says. “We’re not out to say the Bible is wrong. This is just what happened inside a church.”
Throughout his career, Glass, who grew up as an observant Jew but says he stopped believing in God as a teen, has been “sort of obsessed” with stories that go deeper into the conservative Christian world. “I noticed the gap in the cartoonish way evangelicals were portrayed in news media, and the evangelical friends I knew, who were funny and not doctrinaire and took seriously Jesus’s admonition to love each other before anything else. As a reporter, I became really interested in how everybody was getting this wrong.”
Come Sunday ends in the early 2000s, but Pearson’s story doesn’t. In 2008 he, his family, and what remained of his flock—about 100 Jesus-loving, African American Pentecostals-turned-Universalists—joined All Souls, an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class liberal church. Ten years later, they fill leadership roles at every level, from children’s teachers to board members. The church now runs three Sunday services: a traditional UU service with choir, a contemporary service with drums and electric keyboard, and a humanist service without theistic music. To mark the hundredth anniversary of the church’s founding—and of the 1921 massacre of as many as 300 black Tulsans and the destruction of the city’s thriving black Greenwood neighborhood—the 2,200-member congregation will be moving back downtown to a now-vacant city block near Greenwood.
Pearson still travels and speaks extensively, but he’s now spreading his “gospel of inclusion.” “There’s a new curious audience out there,” he says. “There are millions of recovering evangelicals, who have left the church and long questioned the concept of eternal damnation, saying, ‘I know I’m not crazy.’ They cry when they tell me that. When you believe in hell, you create it for yourselves or others. It becomes your reality. People who don’t know Scriptures don’t know how they haunt and hunt us. They don’t know how trapped we are.
“When people stop believing in a customized torture chamber,” he continues, “it takes a huge psychological weight off. That idea of a ubiquitous, angry God has created a lot of mental illness on Earth. If there’s one thing I wish I could expel from people’s consciousness, it’s the idea of an angry God, that he hates people, not just wants to punish, but as Genesis says, regrets that he made us. That’s a very human-concocted entity that has never existed for a moment. If there is a devil, it would be that God. The last half of my life, could I be so audacious to think I could help people rethink what they think about God?”
Updated 5/9/18: Carlton Pearson amended a word in a direct quote in the final paragraph after this story was first published.