A black Pentecostal bishop embraces Universalism, befriends a Unitarian minister, and shakes up the largest congregation in the UUA.
The Rev. Carlton Pearson founded one of the leading Pentecostal megachurches in Tulsa, but lost most of his congregation and his standing in evangelical circles when he became convinced that God damns no one (© Douglas Henderson).
On Sundays at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a praise band starts rocking at 11:20. A large screen with song lyrics lowers over the Shaker chancel table, obscuring a Palladian window that looks out onto the tranquil church gardens. The thumping music seems to suck folks into the pews: professorial-looking men with graying beards, black women in faux fur hats and animal prints, a cuddling lesbian couple in plaid shirts, buff young men in leather and trendy eyewear, and children of all shades of skin tone.
They sing, full-voiced, following along with the words on the screen. Some raise their hands and sway: “Come on, everybody, it’s time to start. / Praise the Lord your God with all your heart.”
The actual service starts at half past. During the sermon, folks regularly call out, “Amen,” “Un-hunh,” Ye-e-e-s,” and “Preach it, brother.”
One service last spring ended on such a joyful note, the middle-aged guest minister, a black Christian, and the church’s young, openly lesbian associate minister spontaneously danced their way together down the center aisle as the electric keyboardist and drummer laid down a praise groove.
At 1,800 members and growing, this is the largest congregation in the Unitarian Universalist Association. A year ago, some 200 Pentecostal Universalist Christians—most of them African American—began attending the 88-year-old overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class church en masse.
To understand this scene, you’ve got to go back to the late 1990s and the vertiginous fall from grace of Bishop Carlton Pearson. Charming, engaging, self-deprecating, never holier than thou, and very funny, Pearson—an African American Pentecostal—had founded one of Tulsa’s most prominent megachurches. He had risen rapidly through the national power structure of evangelical Christendom, in league with the Rev. Oral Roberts, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Rev. Pat Robertson. In his early forties, he was at the pinnacle of his career.
Then Pearson got a divine revelation, as he tells it. Watching a news report one night in the spring of 1996, he was getting worked up about the genocide in Rwanda. His assumption was that the victims were bound for hell, persecuted yet unsaved. Feeling angry at God, and guilty that he himself wasn’t doing anything about it, he recalls, he fell into a sort of reproachful prayer: “God, I don’t know how you can sit on your throne there in heaven and let those poor people drop to the ground hungry, heartbroken, and lost, and just randomly suck them into hell.”
He heard God answer, “We’re not sucking those dear people into hell. Can’t you see they’re already there—in the hell you have created for them and continue to create for yourselves and others all over the planet? We redeemed and reconciled all of humanity at Calvary.”
Everything Pearson thought he knew was true started unraveling, as he began to realize: The whole world is already saved, whether they know it or not—not just professed Christians in good standing, but Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, gay people. There is no hell after you die. And he didn’t have the good sense to keep it to himself.
For the past decade, Pearson has led his followers on one rough ride. Branded a heretic in a formal tribunal by the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004, he has lost almost everything: thousands of members; his close-knit staff; his building; use of his church’s name; rights to sermons, books, audio, and video; and lots of money. Worse than all that, he says, the venom he has felt from conservative Christians has been “much deeper, much more adamant, and more ferocious” than any racism he ever encountered.
This past year he and his remaining “wilderness wanderers,” as he calls them, have arrived at a place that feels like home: All Souls Unitarian Church. But the ride isn’t over yet.
Growing up in a black Pentecostal family in the ghettos of San Diego, Carlton Pearson was raised on wrestling matches with Satan, saving people from Hell, and getting slain by the Holy Spirit. His father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and several uncles had all been preachers, working jobs as janitors and garbage men by day, casting demons out of people on the weekends. He’d known early on that’s what he wanted to do with his life, too.
With his beautiful baritone voice and unshakable Christian faith, he won a full scholarship to Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa. He was so full of promise that Roberts took Pearson under his wing, calling him “my black son.” In 1981 Pearson began his own ministry in Tulsa, which he called the Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center.
Pearson is an extremely charismatic minister; he soon became a celebrity in the evangelical world. By the late 1990s Higher D, as everyone called it, had swelled to 6,000 members, who were dropping $60,000 a week into the collection plate. The church had added on an 800-seat balcony, installed major multimedia equipment, bought a 650-acre ranch, and had plans for a hotel. Pearson had created something unheard of in Tulsa: a multiracial megachurch led by a black man amidst the sprawling housing developments and malls of white South Tulsa.
He innovated ministries for prisons, hospitals, and nursing homes. For fifteen years he served on the ORU board. His nationally broadcast weekly shows were among Trinity Broadcasting Network’s most popular. Folks from around the country came by the busload to hear Pearson preach and sing at his annual Azusa revivals, packing ORU’s Mabee Center to its 12,800-person capacity five days straight.
For a while, no one outside of Higher D seemed to notice what Bishop Pearson had begun telling his flock about what he was calling the “Gospel of Inclusion.” He even ran for mayor of Tulsa in 2001 on a platform of inclusion, which he called “One Tulsa.” He wanted to heal a city with a bitter history of racism and some of the highest rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, and drug use in the country. He figured with his unassailable command of Scripture, he could out-debate anyone in Tulsa, and show them the truth of the doctrine God had revealed to him.
He got that wrong. The conservative Pentecostal and Evangelical powers-that-be sat up and took note, denouncing him from pulpits and accosting his congregants for following a heretic.
Pearson’s fall was fast. He was forced off Trinity Broadcasting and the ORU board and banned from the campus. His cleaners and his wife’s hairdresser refused to serve them, and his children were taunted at school and forbidden by parents to see friends.
His four white ministers left to start a new church nearby, and most of the white people left with them. Then the businesspeople left: If word got out that they went to a heretic’s church, their customers were going to start leaving them. Even some extended family members left.
“I discovered,” Pearson writes in his recent book, The Gospel of Inclusion, “that what I had thought was a close, genuine family of brothers and sisters in Christ was really a power-mad cabal that would not tolerate any deviation from the intellectually, spiritually bankrupt mantra that has brought them so much money and power.”
Meanwhile, in a gracious, older part of town, All Souls Unitarian Church was doing great. In 2000 the church called the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar as senior minister, at age 32, after just one year’s experience as an associate minister in Boston. Lavanhar has his own kind of charisma—warm and passionate, articulate and intent on his vision of what’s right, but always listening closely and watching out for others’ needs.
In addition to two Sunday-morning worship services, all sorts of classes, musical practices, and discussion groups run concurrently in nooks and crannies all over the church. Social hour is every hour, with a staff cook providing a huge brunch in the middle of the day. Throughout the week, there’s always something going on—an “alternative” service Lavanhar brought with him called Soulful Sundown, concerts, dinners, a church-run day care center, current-event forums, committee meetings, and the largest Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the state.
The only problem: Everybody at this liberal church, with its hearty mix of humanists and theists, was really, really white. There were one or two brave souls of color, a few multiracial adoptive families, and periodically visitors who liked the message and the values but, after a few visits, said, “I’m just not sure my family is going to feel comfortable here.” All Souls just couldn’t seem to reach that critical mass of racial diversity.
In the spring of 2008 an opinion survey asked members what change they’d most like to see in the church. More than 90 percent said they wanted the church to be more diverse and multicultural, but there was no real plan to make it happen.
Carlton Pearson and Marlin Lavanhar first met on TV. In early 2001 a local station was looking for religious leaders to debate federal funding of faith-based initiatives. Pearson, who was one of President George W. Bush’s spokespersons, was an obvious choice. Not many ministers in Tulsa were on the con side, so Lavanhar, an outsider fresh out of Harvard Divinity School, got tapped.
Lavanhar knew about Higher D because All Souls kids visited there when they studied megachurches in their “Neighboring Faiths” class. And Pearson knew about All Souls because it was the church where Ron Roberts, the gay son Oral failed to “heal” with his famed laying on of hands, had turned for acceptance. “I had a grudge based on fear and ignorance,” Pearson says. “I used to drive by and pray that the devil would be cast out of this church, and I ended up getting cast into it,” he jokes now.
More reflectively, Pearson recalls, “Then sometimes I’d look at the little steeple without a cross, and it looked so quaint, calm, safe, and I’d actually have the emotion: I wish I could be what they are, no flash, glitter, embellishments, demands, no expectation of demons cast out or miracles to happen.”
In sharp contrast with the massive megachurch architecture around Tulsa, surrounded by parking lots, attendants, and police details, All Souls is deceptively modest. All but the sanctuary’s end wall is obscured on the frontage by tasteful landscaping. But once you get into it, the church just keeps going, with classrooms, offices, auditorium, library, chapel, theatre, playground, and a full institutional kitchen. The church has recently acquired fourteen adjacent house lots and has plans to double the sanctuary size. Still, in Tulsa it’s not considered a big church.
When the story broke that evangelicals were calling Carlton Pearson a heretic, Lavanhar recognized right away that what he was preaching was classic Universalism. He called Pearson up and invited him to lunch. “Marlin was very sensitive and seemed to understand even more than I did in some ways where I was,” Pearson recalls. “He was probing my mind, and I his, and he was offering brotherhood. I didn’t have many friends in this town.”
Then Lavanhar invited Pearson to preach at All Souls. The sanctuary was packed. “They gave us their Sunday morning offering,” Pearson recalls, tearing up. “It makes me emotional just to think about it.”
Tulsa’s United Church of Christ ministers also reached out to Pearson. (He was granted ministerial fellowship in that denomination in 2006.) “But I was fellowshipping with Marlin,” Pearson says. “He grasped my position on Universalism even more than the UCC folks.” Pearson had read about Universalism at ORU, but he didn’t realize that All Souls Unitarian was part of that tradition.
In late 2005 Pearson sold the Higher Dimensions organization in order to avoid foreclosure, at a loss of $3 million in equity. The building is now a Christian prep school. “We were hurting, scattered, wandering through the wilderness like Moses and the children of Israel,” Pearson says. But they weren’t giving up. The 200 or so survivors renamed themselves New Dimensions. For the next two and a half years they held a one o’clock Sunday service in Trinity Episcopal Church downtown, attended on Sunday mornings by Tulsa’s country club and business elite.
Meanwhile, lunch had become a monthly ritual for newfound friends Pearson and Lavanhar. In April 2008, Lavanhar preached a sermon that got some buzz on the Internet, defending presidential candidate Barack Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, by placing him in context with the Hebrew prophets and the historic black church. He showed Pearson a thankful letter Wright had sent.
Pearson thought out-loud, “We should have come to All Souls, because y’all really are interested in this kind of thing, racial justice. We wouldn’t be like boarders or visitors. Y’all would want us there. It would mean a lot to you.” So Lavanhar extended yet another invitation. New D could have the 11:30 a.m. Sunday service slot, free, for the summer, when All Souls went down to a single 10:00 a.m. service.
What caught everyone off guard was that about half the people who showed up at that service were All Souls folks. They loved the emotion, the spirit, the high they got from “bucking and shouting and getting our praise on,” as Cassandra Austin, a New D member since 1994, describes it.
Then in August, the quietest time of the church year, the question came up at a staff planning retreat: What time should they offer the New D group once the church year started up again? Lavanhar phoned Pearson back in Tulsa to work it out.
But Pearson interrupted him. He knew he couldn’t continue his ministry in Tulsa. To support his family and his church, as well as to spread his message of inclusion, he had been spending many of his weekends guest preaching in places like Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles. And he had just learned that his associate minister, Jesse Williams, would die of cancer in a matter of months.
“I announced to the choir last night,” he told Lavanhar, “that I’m not going to keep doing services here. New Dimensions will dissolve. My wife and I are going to consider All Souls our spiritual home, and I encourage them to do the same.”
And they did. “We’re used to, if the man of the house has a vision, you follow it, no questions,” says Nicole Ogundare, a twenty-year New D member whom All Souls hired as a ministers’ assistant this past year. “We said yes.”
All Souls doesn’t vote on new members and visitors. It just accepts them. So there were no board meetings about whether to merge the congregations, no committee about how to smooth the transition, no discussion groups about how the church would adapt to make the new members welcome, or, just as important, how to keep old members in their comfort zone. There was no time.
For the folks at All Souls, it was a godsend, an answer to a prayer, if you believe in that sort of thing. But it was also a classic case of, Be careful what you wish for.
It might seem obvious that if you suddenly mix a couple hundred African Americans into an all-white church, in a segregated city, confronting racism is bound to be an issue. But at All Souls, it’s easy to believe that’s not what’s happening. What the church is confronting instead is mixed feelings about Christianity and musical style.
Last September, All Souls ministers, in consultation with the board, made a quick decision to turn most of the music at the 11:30 service over to the New D tradition, as a way to minister to the sudden influx of new members who had lost so much of their church experience. David Smith from New D was hired as associate music director, with help from a UUA grant. The New Dimensions Chorale, a praise ensemble—and all that’s left of the name—regularly sings.
Also at 11:30, one of the older New D women welcomes the congregation the way Pearson always did: “Welcome to All Souls, the friendliest, trendiest, most radically inclusive church experience in Tulsa.” Everyone always applauds.
On paper, everything else in the two services is the same: sermon, prayers, reading, Doxology. But in spirit, the two services couldn’t feel more different.
“The only hard thing for me is having the drum set and the God music,” says Julie Skye, an eleven-year All Souls member. “But I just change the words: I love the earth, the garden. There couldn’t be cooler people joining the church. But there’s something about the drums I just don’t like.”
But Brigid Kelley, a mother of six who grew up in the church and now teaches in the religious education program, thinks it’s great: “With all us young people, we need the power of the beat to bring us back to the energy of the earth. All this inclusion, I love it. We can’t be like a rock over here. We need to soften up, let some new ideas in.”
Lavanhar acknowledges that a portion of the congregation, mostly long-term members who are uncomfortable with the overtly theistic language of the music, may never embrace the new musical style at the 11 o’clock service. About seven people have told the board they are reducing or withdrawing their pledges because of the changes, he reports. And some people have stopped coming.
At the same time, about 125 new members have joined since last September, mostly younger people intrigued by the second service, and about one-quarter are people of color. Neighbors are complaining about a 17 percent increase in Sunday morning traffic over the past year, and the church has added two additional lots, because of all the visitors checking out All Souls.
Over the year, All Souls has fine-tuned the praise music: putting a sound-buffering tube on the drum set, working more UU songs into the praise mix, and paying attention to the God language.
At one point, Lavanhar mentioned to new associate music director Smith, “You know, the word Lord is going to be a little hard here.”
Smith looked puzzled. “You guys are so funny.” After all, services often start with “This is indeed a day which God has made” and end with a musical benediction, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” The congregation sang “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” out of the hymnal on Easter. The church’s statement of purpose, printed in the order of service each week, references “love of God” and “the essential gospel of Jesus.”
Lavanhar had to admit, “There is a lot of God language around here.” In fact, as part of its theme-based ministry, each month the entire church focuses on a different Bible story—in open acknowledgement of their spiritual richness, but also because “it’s almost self-defense here in Oklahoma to have some biblical literacy,” Lavanhar said, “and you need that to understand literature and arts no matter where you are.”
But behind the apparent contradiction, he discovered, was a very real pain and an opportunity for spiritual growth. Since last September, every week, a steady stream of men and women have come to talk with him about being abused—emotionally, sexually, or spiritually—as children in a Christian church. When they heard praise music sung, and saw the upraised hands, the trauma was reignited.
Over and over, he has heard his members say, “I came to All Souls to get away from all that.”
Each time he asks: What is the “that”?
“In most cases,” Lavanhar wrote in a recent issue of the church newsletter Simple Gifts, “people tell me it was authoritarian leadership, the dogma, the anti-intellectualism, the superstitious and magical thinking, the way women were treated, the homophobia, the guilt, the shame, the judgmentalism, the proselytizing, and the sense that their community was especially privileged with righteousness and truth, and the way that other traditions and ways of thinking were demonized. None of which, I point out, has been brought into All Souls.”
Unitarian Universalist churches do not have a test of belief. There is no creed, but a covenant, a way we behave toward one another.
“There is an African American experience of God,” Lavanhar has challenged members, “that has been molded and shaped by slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and persistent racism. Many have an experience of God that involves Jesus. They don’t say it’s the only way. If we can’t accept that experience in our church, then we’re not living by what we say.
“Our history is filled with people rejected for their religious beliefs. That is something we share with them. We’re on this ship together. It’s full of excitement and possibility and also danger and risk. By living out our covenant and statement of purpose, it has forced us to change. It’s not forsaking Unitarian Universalism. It’s being Unitarian Universalist.”
Of course, New Dimensions members have also had their struggles, which didn’t end when they started coming to All Souls.
At Pearson’s lowest point, in 2005, he got a call from an old friend, the Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder, who had also grown up African American Pentecostal in California and had gone on to found City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco. She invited him to speak at a conference she was organizing in Phoenix.
When he had finished preaching about his Gospel of Inclusion, the predominantly gay congregation stood and applauded. Flunder invited Pearson to walk down the center aisle, and the congregants kissed, hugged, and held him. Then she motioned him forward, took out a bowl of warm water, knelt and washed his feet. “That was one of the holiest moments of my life,” Pearson recalls, choked with emotion.
Inclusion took on yet another dimension. Although he had preached that homosexuality was a sin, gay people were the first to embrace him when he was down. Soon after, he told the folks at New D, “We’ve got to start talking about homosexuals. This is hard for me, for all of us.”
Those who were still with him were the hard core, ready to follow his message of love and inclusion wherever it went. Some had gay friends and family and felt they could at last be open about that. Others really struggled with the idea of a lesbian like the Rev. Tamara Lebak, All Souls’s associate minister, in the pulpit. But Pearson had always been about creating one big multicultural family. This was just one more step.
“We’ve been learning under Bishop Pearson about broadening your mind to the acceptance of all people,” says Jeana Dorsey, who joined Higher D in 1989. “We don’t put a period on it. It’s a comma. I’m on a journey. I have no idea where it’s going to go, but I’m willing.”
“My folks that stayed here are tough,” Pearson says. “They’re tender enough to love and be compassionate. They’re tough enough to sustain differences, and they’re taught enough to know what they believe.”
This past year New D folks have filled the two classes All Souls offers on Unitarian Universalism, learning about our history of heretics—Michael Servetus, Francis Dávid, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Pearson’s son went through the Coming of Age program, learning to articulate his beliefs as a UU.
“They’re saying the same thing we are,” says Walter Armstrong, a big, outgoing usher who welcomes everyone coming into All Souls, just as he did at New D. “I pass about forty churches before I get here, so I have choices. But this is my choice.”
In this pocket of the Bible Belt, UUs in Tulsa may have just glimpsed the kind of multiracial, multicultural, embracing community Unitarian Universalists long to be a part of.
“I want to see this become what I couldn’t do: a major, true, multicultural faith-based church that has mass appeal,” says Pearson, who in May was called as interim senior minister at Christ Universal Temple in Chicago. “But I want to see them make it twice as big as they’re talking about,” he added with a laugh, referring to the capital campaign to expand the church. “We charismatics are always thinking, Mega, mega, mega!”
Lavanhar calls having the New D members join his church a gift of grace—the greatest thing that’s happened, as well as the hardest year, in his ministry.
“If we don’t make this kind of thing work, we’re in jeopardy of becoming a small, parochial church that appeals to just a tiny slice of the NPR audience,” Lavanhar says. “It’s not our message that’s the problem. That’s strong and relevant. If we go ten to twenty years and have not diversified in any significant way, it’s going to seem ridiculous to say all these things we sing and speak about—love, diversity, a unified world, being open-minded, open-hearted.
“This is about becoming who we say we are. If we do, we will become transformed by that process.”
Lyrics from “Everybody Praise the Lord” by Gary Oliver, ©1992 CMI-HP Publishing/ASCAP, courtesy of Gary Oliver Enterprises.
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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