On Sunday, the man who was one of Tulsa’s most high-profile ministers before he became one of its most controversial, told audiences watching a movie about his evangelical fall from grace that he continues a search for answers.
More than 15 years after renouncing a belief in hell and being branded a heretic for doing so, he understands when people have difficult questions.
That happened more than once during Q-and-A sessions following “Come Sunday,” a Netflix film about Pearson that more than 400 watched in special screenings at Circle Cinema ahead of its Friday debut on the streaming service.
As one woman, who described herself as German, asked in one auditorium: “If there’s no hell, where did Hitler go? How can that work?”
There are “a lot of slave (owners) that I would want to go to hell, too, so I wrestle with that hell thing, too,” Pearson told her, before talking about how God allows innocent people and children to die and saying, “We need to re-think God more than we need to re-think Hitler.”
This comment mirrored a moment in the film that depicts Pearson’s epiphany — occurring after he’s seen a TV story about those dying in the Rwandan genocide.
“Come Sunday” tells the story of Pearson, former leader of one of the city’s largest congregations at the diverse 5,000-member Higher Dimensions Family Church, and how he was ostracized for adopting universalist teachings in about 2000.
After telling his members that they did not need to be saved to avoid hell because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, he would lose almost all of his following.
His story was told by public radio program “This American Life” and reported by Russell Cobb, a Tulsan who was in attendance on Sunday and whose mother attended All Souls Unitarian Church — where Pearson now serves as an affiliate minister.
Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister at All Souls, moderated the audience discussion with Pearson as well as with the film’s director, Joshua Marston, whose movie was adapted from Cobb’s story.
Pearson is played in the film by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an Oscar-nominee for “12 Years a Slave,” while Emmy-winner Martin Sheen portrays Oral Roberts, the evangelist and mentor to Pearson to the degree that Pearson said he referred to him as his “black son.”
The film depicts Roberts as disapproving of Pearson’s controversial doctrine and trying to steer him back to conventional Christian thinking, but Pearson told the audience the legend later gave the idea more thought.
He said this came in a meeting with Roberts and his wife as the couple was troubled by the idea that their son Ronald — who was gay and had committed suicide — was in hell.
“We talked for more than three hours,” Pearson told the audience about Roberts, from whose campus he had been banned, “and he said, ‘I’ve listened to everything you’ve said, and I like what I hear.’”
“Come Sunday” had its world premiere in January at Sundance Film Festival. Lavanhar told audiences that there will be another screening at which Pearson will also speak, at 6:30 p.m. April 25 at All Souls.
Many of the church’s members could be found among the hundreds at Circle Cinema watching and applauding the courage of his convictions.
“I’m a member of All Souls and I’ve had the opportunity to hear him preach and to meet members who came from Higher Dimensions,” said Deanna Tirrell, “and I’ve appreciated the idea that we can come to our own truths.”
Pearson’s preaching at All Souls is “very moving and very powerful, and we Unitarians really like him,” said Jim Elder. “He fits with us, because we’re not all ducks lined up and following in a row.”
Madelon Waters moved to Tulsa in 1996, and she and her husband began attending Higher Dimensions. When he preached his gospel of inclusion, they were among those who stayed with Pearson.
When he was branded a heretic and people left the church, “I was hurt, and I was hurt for him. But I know that he knows what he’s talking about.”
Questions were more curious than challenging as Sunday’s crowd was mostly made up of his faithful and fans.
They provided more than one standing ovation to Pearson, who worked with Netflix to stage this screening event in “the city of my crime and my prime,” he said.