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By C.J. Rhodes

Monday, September 14, 2009.

At first sight Bishop Carlton Pearson didn’t look like a heretic. I met him this summer in Tulsa, USA, where I for the first time attended his present church New Dimensions Worship Center. His persona was both calm and comical and meeting him was like meeting an old friend or a revered elder. He still sings as sweet as he did on all those AZUSA CDs that litter my house. And as before, he quotes Greek and speaks in unknown tongues in the same sermon.

But, of course, things are different now. The crowds have gone; only a remnant of about three hundred members from his former church remain, among them his loving parents and siblings. And the congregation is less Sanctified given the kinds of folk, usually not welcome at Pentecostal churches I’ve attended, who populate the pews. I guess that is the plight of heretics.

At fifty-four, the fourth generation classical Pentecostal is now more known for his new Gospel of Inclusion "heresy" than for his years as a prominent evangelist and megachurch managerial genius. There will be a generation that at best knows him as the apostle proclaiming that hell will be empty, and at worse a false prophet preaching the doctrine of demons.

He proclaimed a message of love and was met with some of the bitterest hatred from the saints. That’s the remedy for heresy, I suppose. But with all the inquisitions seeking to burn Pearson at the stake, what is lost is that this man, whether because of courage or insanity, risked all to follow what he believed to be the Word of the Lord. Heretic or not, he had the courage to be himself even if it would cost him everything. “There’s a quest in every question,” said Pearson, “and the questions led me to this place. I’ve told God that if I’m wrong tell me; even kill me. God has done neither and so I’m going all the way.”

At the end of the service that Sunday, held in an Episcopal church, Pearson stood before the motley congregation. With tears streaming down his bronze cheeks he communicated his truth to us, saying that he finally loved himself. “It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your entire self and soul is loved. What most churches do is gossip about Jesus. But gossip isn’t the Gospel, which is about love.” Without apology, without one plea, this fourth generation Pentecostal loved himself as much as the God he served. 

This tongue talking worshiper, who had lost everything to find himself, has genuinely arrived at a place where he cared more for his truth than he did the acceptance of others. I was honestly moved by my brief entry into his inner rhapsody as he looked us in our faces and in a way, without saying it, gave us the permission to finally love ourselves too. 

“I use to be so intolerant, now I know that I am loved. You are loved!” Whatever peace he had, the congregation wanted it, longed for it, craved it. This wasn’t so much about adopting a new theology as it was about being true to oneself. After several years of living for the affirming applause of other, between whose clapping hands he existed, the Bishop was finally at a place of rest.

I must admit I was inspired by his courage—or craziness—that caused him to do such a thing. He had found the belief in and for which he was willing to live and die and lost friends and gained new enemies because of it. Now, there are some things about his theology that some may wince at, including myself, but his overall willingness to think and love in spite of the repercussions proved that he was finally living authentically—even if his authenticity is considered foolishness to some. 

Pearson, unlike many preachers of his caliber, had counted the cost of discipleship. He had seen the hypocrisy and the lived in a world were people wore masks. “I use to hear Holiness preachers send Baptists to hell because they weren’t living right and didn’t have the Holy Ghost as we perceive it, you know. Then I would see those same Holiness preachers chasing women, drinking, and getting high. Talk about double standards. Were they going to hell too?”

Pearson pressed the questions, all of which were a part of his quest. He found a universe without hell and full of Divine Love in whose presence he now lives authentically and with courage. To be sure, I gained an even greater respect for him after witnessing how his dignity under the weight of rejection and ridicule added to his royal mystique. 

“If there is a hell,” Pearson weeps, “I’ve already been there.” And all of that got me to thinking about whether or not we, whether we are orthodox Christians or something else, have the courage to be authentic. If we were honest, there are a number of preachers more concerned with their kingdoms, but some of us know what goes on behind the conferences and cameras. At least Pearson is “keeping it real” in a world that likes to wear masks in order to be approved. The crowds may be gone, but let Pearson tell you, he got himself back.

With thanks to New Black Man.

 CJ Rhodes is a graduate of Duke Divinity School.


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