It’s been a decade since Hollywood first approached Tulsa minister Bishop Carlton Pearson about making a movie on his epic fall from evangelical grace.
This week, Pearson and his family will fly to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah to watch the world premiere of the film, “Come Sunday,” featuring Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Pearson and Danny Glover as his uncle.
Pearson said making the film was an emotional experience for him.
“When I watched the first draft, I didn’t realize how raw my emotions still are,” he said in an interview last week with the Tulsa World.
“It was very tender for me. You think you’re over something until you recall it and reconnect with it.”
The movie begins in the early 1990s when Pearson was pastor of Higher Dimensions, one of Tulsa’s largest and best-known charismatic churches. He was on the Oral Roberts University board, a frequent guest on national Christian television and host of the Azusa Street conference that brought huge crowds and some of Christendom’s biggest names to Tulsa.
Then Pearson did the unthinkable.
He began to preach that there is no hell, that Christ’s death and resurrection purchased salvation for all mankind, and that because of that, all people wouldo to heaven, a form of universalism that stood in sharp contrast to traditionally accepted Christian beliefs.
National leaders called him a heretic. Invitations to be on Christian television stopped. Attendance and giving at his church on South Memorial dwindled, and in 2003, he lost the building.
A few hundred of his several thousand members stayed with him, meeting first at Trinity Episcopal Church downtown and then at All Souls Unitarian Church. He later moved to Chicago, and then returned to Tulsa.
Last week at All Souls, where he preaches twice a month, Pearson talked about the movie, originally named “Heretic.”
“It’s really the story of Oral Roberts, a father, pursuing his son to avoid what happened to me,” said Pearson, who often refers to himself as Roberts’ informally adopted son.
“Oral was like a second father, a spiritual father, to me. We had a bond from the time I got here. He didn’t want me to destroy my ministry, to commit ministerial suicide.”
He said Roberts was trying to “convert him” away from universalism and back to his fundamentalist roots, “not back to Pentecostal roots. We never stopped speaking in tongues, or being Pentecostal.”
“He said ‘I’ll never stop loving you; I’ll chase you like a hound to get you back,’ ” said Pearson, who came to ORU in 1971 after high school in San Diego.
He thinks the film captures well what happened to him in Tulsa.
“Once they buy the rights to it, they can embellish it, and they did, but the truth of the spirit of what I went through was there. They had the essential message accurate.
“They left out some things I wanted in and put in some things I would have left out.”
One scene in the script he was sorry to see cut re-created events that took place right after the final service in the church he had lost.
The atmosphere was like a funeral.
Back at home, he said, “I thought, what did I just do? What just happened? That’s not my property any more, that’s not my ministry.
“It all happened so fast. I was just dizzy. The room began to spin.”
His oldest son, Julian, then 8 or 9, came up to him.
“He put his arm around my leg and said, ‘Papa, you did good.’
“I just broke, and he did, too. It was a very touching moment. I took it as a prophetic word from the Lord that I had done well in ministry.”
The Festival hosts screenings in Park City, Salt Lake City and at Sundance Mountain Resort, from January 18–28.
Pearson said the film is less about his life and his beliefs than about “my transition and the friction around the transition, what it cost me, and my family, my emotions, my friends ...”
And how it affected his relationship with Oral Roberts.
A scene near the end of the movie re-creates a 3½-hour conversation Pearson had with Roberts at his house in California.
“He stands up, at the end of that conversation, and he puts his hands in his back pocket, and he looks up to the ceiling, and he says, ‘I’ve listened very carefully to everything you’ve said, ... and I like what I hear.’
“That’s the closest to an affirmation that I ever got,” Pearson said.
As a consultant for the movie, Pearson got to know the actors, writers and crew.
During the filming in Atlanta last year, he invited crew members to a church where he was preaching to give them the feel of a Pentecostal church experience.
His son Julian, 23, who is interested in filmmaking, served as a voluntary production assistant through the entire film shoot.
For years, Pearson had talked with the screenwriter, Marcus Hinchey, at all hours of the night, sharing “all the details of what I went through, what my wife went through, the church members, family members.”
Ejiofor, a Nigerian native raised in London, came to see him in Tulsa.
“He came to my house, and we ate chicken wings for a week,” Pearson said. “We talked more about spiritual things than about the movie.”
Pearson said he thought Sheen was brilliant as Oral Roberts.
“He looks so much like Oral, it’s freaky. It’s like he was channeling him. The way he called my name. The way he said ‘God.’
“When he walked in the room, when he cleared his throat. I cried. To me it was supernatural. It was so beautiful. I didn’t coach him. I’m pretty touched by it.”
Pearson said no one fully knows what his decision to embrace universalism cost him.
“I’ve lost home, property, an inheritance for my children. I lost everything.”
And he believes if he would revert to Christian orthodoxy and publicly apologize, he could have it all back.
“If I’d do what they tell me, I’d be fine.”
He also believes what he calls his gospel of inclusion is not that radical.
“I’m getting a lot of the criticism, but there’s a lot of people saying the same thing, and they said it before me and said it better than I’ve said it.”
And that includes some national leaders who are reluctant to say so publicly for fear of what it will cost them, he said.
After the Jan. 21 Sundance premiere, “Come Sunday” is expected to be released in limited theaters this spring, and then on Netflix. It is being produced by Endgame Entertainment and This American Life, and distributed by Netflix.
SOURCE: TULSA WORLD