Carlton Pearson, famous Pentecostal megachurch preacher and one of the original televangelists, passed away last week at 70. So young. I had the delight of spending a day with the man in 2013. I had hoped to reconnect when I next visited Tulsa. Sadly, that will never happen now. He’s left an inspiring legacy; Pentecostal preachers can admit they were wrong and change their beliefs (but it comes at a price).

Who was Carlton Pearson?

Carlton came from four generations of African American Pentecostal preachers. In 1977, the year before I began my itinerant preaching ministry, Carlton left the Christian based Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to begin his as a gospel preacher and singer. He was always popular and charismatic.

Many itinerant preachers, after years of constant travelling, the yearning to establish roots becomes prominent, so in 1981, Carlton  founded Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Centre in Tulsa. The centre and Carlton Pearson’s ministry went from success to success. The church grew to an average weekly attendance of over 6,000. Carlton created something unheard of in Tulsa: a multi-racial megachurch, led by a black man, amidst sprawling white South Tulsa.

Tulsa’s dark racial history includes the 1920s white supremacist race massacre. The attack on the black community left over 35 square blocks of the black neighbourhood destroyed, rendering 10,000 residents homeless. Estimates of those killed vary from 75 to 300 dead. Such harrowing incidents linger in collective memory. Church segregation still existed in Tulsa when Carlton was building his church: his multi-racial congregation and meetings were a remarkable phenomenon.

Carlton’s national television show reached millions weekly. His annual seven day Azusa Conference  attracted 40,000 to 50,000, from around the US and the world and sold out all the hotels in the city. Carlton had found absolute favour with the famous healing televangelist Oral Roberts, who called him his “black son”. Oral had lost a son, Ron, to suicide. He was gay.

Before the internet and social media, Carlton Pearson was far more than a preacher: he was an influencer, spokesperson, and celebrity.

How Carlton Pearson became a heretic

In the early 2000s, Carlton Pearson had questions; something never encouraged in Pentecostalism or Evangelicalism. There had been moments of questioning before, but Carlton said it really began one night watching a news report on the Rwandan genocide. Seeing the enormous suffering these people had experienced, he couldn’t see how a God of love could send these people to hell because they hadn’t “received Jesus”. Redemption from hell is a foundational Christian doctrine of Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism and Catholicism. You tamper with that, then the whole thing can unravel.

Carlton began studying and found his answer. There is NO hell. Where did he find the answer? In the Bible. The same Bible used to preach hell and damnation to “the lost”? Mmmmm……interesting.

In 2003, defending his views at the African-American Pentecostal Bishops forum Carlton said, “A more careful study of Scriptures will reveal that salvation is also and, perhaps more often or more comprehensively, pictured in a universally inclusive way, in which God is redeemer of the whole world or creation, including all human beings,” The next year, the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops declared, for preaching his new inclusionist and universalist revelation, Bishop Carlton Pearson was a heretic.

A heretic? What? Like Martin Luther? Martin Luther challenged the hypocrisies and non-biblical practices of the Roman Catholic church. Labelled a heretic, Luther defied papal authority and ignited the birth of Protestantism in the early 16th century. If it wasn’t for Luther, the heretic, we’d all be Roman Catholics.

By 2006, Carlton had lost everything. All his invitations to preach cancelled. Preacher friends no longer spoke to him. Church and ministry staff resigned. The congregation dwindled from the thousands to a few hundred, and the building lost to foreclosure. His new revelation left Carlton with the wreckage of a life that had once been brimming with influence and success.

Meeting Carlton Pearson

In 2013, I was invited to attend a secret one day meeting in New York. Organised by the Arcus Foundation. The meeting was a gathering of gay evangelical Christian leaders and LGBTQ organisations to discuss the lay of the religious land and strategies to create change.

You might think it strange that I’d been flown all the way from Sydney, Australia to attend. Several months earlier, in July, after attending the final Exodus Conference in California, I’d had a meeting with one of Arcus’ directors. As the Arcus Foundation funded LGBTQ projects, particularly in the area of religion, I was hoping they might consider funding the work I was doing in Australia. Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International (ABBI) had been officially founded that year.

I shared with the Global Religions Program Director my background and that as a former, well-known Pentecostal preacher, and ordained Assemblies of God minister, I had unique insights  and connections. I particularly emphasised the growing role of Hillsong in the global evangelical landscape and shared recent successful dialogues I’d had about LGBTQ issues and also my recent opportunities in Asia. My next step, the Director suggested, was to bring these unique insights to the upcoming forum. I returned to New York in September for the Evangelical Culture Advisory Meeting.

There were a dozen well-known gay Christian leaders around the table, including Matthew Vines (from this meeting Matthew founded the Reformation Project) and Justin Lee from the Gay Christian Network (GCN now Q Christian Fellowship). I was surprised to see Carlton Pearson. Was he gay?, I thought.

During the day, Carlton shared captivating stories about the Oral Roberts family and other well-known Pentecostals I was familiar with. He knew them all personally. I related to much of his story, having lost friends, reputation, career, everything when I chose to live truthfully as a gay man. Carlton was one  person who I could “sit at his feet” listening to him for days. You can’t beat an African American preacher storyteller.

Bishop Yvette Flunder (also African American) is the  only other person I’d say that about. Yvette (a lesbian, or same gender loving, her preferred term), Bishop Gene Robinson, and I were a part of the speaking team at an LGBTQ Christian Conference in Hong Kong the year before. The night before the conference was unforgettable. We were on a ferry on Hong Kong harbour when Yvette began sharing with some leaders of the conference. I sat in the background and listened. Such eloquence, profound insights, and truths. She was captivating.

At the Arcus forum, Carlton’s story of his transformative moment of acceptance and healing had the greatest impact on me.

When he was at this lowest in 2005, he’d been invited to speak at a conference in Pheonix, organised by Bishop Flunder. The conference was predominately LGBTQ.

“At the close of my sermon, Bishop Yvette Flunder asked me to walk down the center aisle, and allow the people to shake my hand or embrace me as they all gave a rousing, tearful standing ovation. I was deeply touched and moved by the warm reception, but I was even more confounded as I returned to the front to find Bishop Flunder on her knees in front of a vat of warm water and surrounded by a host of celebrants. She asked me to take a seat and remove my socks and shoes, and she, along with other ministers, washed my feet and asked that I become a fathering spirit among them. It was as high an honour for me to accept that spiritual function as it was to accept my initial ordination to full-time ministry over thirty-five years ago.

Yvette Flunder said to me, “Bishop, if you are really an inclusionist, you need to be ready, because we are coming.” I wept. The entire experience was profoundly cathartic for me, inspired by a group of which I had never expected to be a part. God used the most marginalized, discriminated- against people in modern culture to embrace me at my lowest, loneliest ebb. You can’t teach what you don’t know, and you can’t lead where you don’t go. My life and ministry will never be the same.”

The Gospel of Inclusion (2007)

Carlton Pearson

His revelation of inclusion had cost him everything, but he found solace in the LGBTQ-affirming congregation. This, he said, was “one of the holiest moments of my life,”.

I wonder

I often wonder how many famous megachurch pastors still believe what they previously preached. Could they have lost faith, yet to keep the reputation in place, the speaking invitations and money coming in, and the church together, remain silent? Any hint that they may no longer believe, then all would come crashing down. Too much has been invested to risk it all by being authentic/honest.

I know of such pastors. It’s a façade that some of have seen through.

I know of one megachurch pastor who is secretly gay affirming but will never come out about it because his ministry would be swiftly destroyed by bible-quoting Christians and leaders. When he was sending a young pastor to plant a new church in the USA, he told him to stay away from the gay issue. “After gay marriage is passed, give it 10 years, and it will no longer be controversial”, he advised.

Some straight evangelical leaders have come out about their new understanding of the scriptures, LGBTQ people and our relationships. I think of Tony Campolo (one of the first), David Gushee, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and here in Australia, Rowland Croucher and Rob Buckingham. All have paid a price, lost their reputations, invitations, friendships, income.

Carlton Pearson never wavered from preaching his new found truth, no matter what the cost or opposition.

There comes a time when you HAVE to live the truth, your truth. I know it was like that for me. If you hide, you can’t live with yourself because you know your self is a liar.

And yet it seems some can.

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Must listen to Carlton’s story on This American Life, December 16, 2005.

It was this episode that inspired the making of the movie Come Sunday,  The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2018.

In case you’re wondering

PS. Sadly, we didn’t get any funding from the Arcus Foundation. Staff and funding criteria changed. We still rely solely on donations from individuals. You can make your tax deductible contribution HERE. Make it a monthly gift and join the #ABBIfamily.