If, like me, you live for your weekly dose of This American Life on NPR (Sundays), you probably already heard the story of Reverend Carlton Pearson of Tulsa, OK, which was originally broadcast in December of last year, and repeated last week. I finally got around to the podcast of last week's episode, and it brought me to tears (not ideal when one is driving home from work).
Rev. Pearson was a famous, powerful Pentecostal Bishop and preacher who heard the voice of God speak to him one day, while he was holding his young daughter and watching news coverage of the Rwandan genocide. The message was: HELL is something created by humans, not by God.
Read over the fold to find out what happens to an Evangelical, Pentecostal, mega-church-leading preacher when he starts telling people there is no HELL.
Reverend Pearson started from nothing, born and raised in a religious but impoverished family in San Diego. He demonstrated early that he had a gift for the Pentecostal style of preaching.
Reporter Russell Cobb takes us through the remarkable and meteoric rise of Carlton Pearson from a young man to a Pentecostal Bishop: from the moment he first cast the devil out of his seventeen-year-old girlfriend, to the days when he had a close, personal relationship with Oral Roberts and had appearances on TV and at the White House.
Christians of this sort strongly believe in Hell, and that most folks will be consigned there. In this tradition, it is only through being "saved" (or "born again in Christ") that one can escape the fire and brimstone and gnashing of teeth, to live happily ever after in Heaven.
After Rev. Pearson's "revelation," he began to preach what he calls the Gospel of Inclusion: EVERYONE is "saved" - the death and resurrection of Christ was enough to save non-believers and believers alike. After all, it's easy to choose faith when the alternative is an eternity of Hell... and it's much harder to pack a Church (or maintain control over people) if that threat and fear are removed.
Guess what? He lost most of his flock.
What follows are the swift departures of his pastors, and an exodus from his congregation – which quickly dwindled to a few hundred people. Donations drop off too...
Even foreclosure on his Church didn't stop him. As the reporter points out, Pearson discovered that when you stop telling gays that they are going to Hell, they start coming to your church.
Pearson describes a scene in which he was guest-preaching to a GLBT audience in California, and for the first time in his life, he got a standing ovation for his sermon. Afterwards, the local pastor and congregation seated him and washed his feet in gratitude and respect. He then witnessed one very effeminate young man dance down the aisle. This young man approached the local pastor, kissed her, and whispered something in her ear. As Pearson was watching this scene, he heard God's voice again: "She saved his life." Later that night, he called the pastor and told her that he witnessed this, and told her what had God said to him at that moment. She replied that the young man had said, "You saved my life" to her at that exact moment. Turns out, this young man was the son of a Pentecostal preacher himself, was HIV positive, and had been rejected by his family.
That's pretty much where I discovered I was crying.
Another highlight of Act II was the interview with one of the few longtime parishoners who stayed and changed with Rev. Pearson.
I don't know if I buy Rev. Pearson's theology... but it is heartening to know that it is there. This podcast is a really rewarding hour of your time, as are most hours spent with
This American Life. At the link, go to the left and click "Archives" - it is the first one listed, called "Heretics." I can't seem to direct link to it.
Thanks for reading.