Bishop Carlton Pearson interview: Hell and high water
Fame, wealth, influence, and a church of thousands; Bishop Carlton Pearson had it all. What went wrong? He heard the voice of God. Stephen Tomkins hears his story
Born in the San Diego ghetto, Bishop Carlton Pearson, will next year be the subject of a major film. He became a superstar preacher, built a megachurch from nothing, gained a huge, devoted following, and rubbed shoulders with the most powerful political and religious leaders in the United States.
But of course that’s not why Hollywood is interested. Or, to be fair, why I am. The most compelling part of his story is what happened next. Bishop Carlton Pearson started asking the wrong theological question, and the whole thing came crashing down. The film is to be called Heretic, and the heresy that cost him everything is that he stopped believing in hell.
What was the faith like that you were brought up in?
It was classical Pentecostalism, very strict holiness line, heaven and hell. However, it was a great life. I was very secure. Loved my family. Loved God. Loved the church. It gave me a sense of security.
We were in church all day Sunday, and Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday night. We started nine o’clock Sunday morning and we wouldn’t get through till 10 or 11 Sunday night. On Sunday afternoons we’d go to a park or the beach and laugh and talk and pray and do scriptures and everything was related to church.
I gave my life to Christ when I was five or six. I received the Baptism of the Holy Ghost around seven or eight. It wasn’t boring. I loved it. Though I would go to sleep sometimes on Sunday night when they preached.
What were your attitudes to non-Christians?
Well, sympathy and judgment. The pressure was I’ve got to get these people saved, got to save them from hell – it was like I was protecting them from God, because God was angry with them.
That was the pressure, always having to get my Catholic friends to stop being Catholic. We lived about five miles north of the Tijuana border, and most of my friends outside of my little black community were Mexicans. I loved them, but believed they were hell-bound because they prayed to Mary, not Jesus.
And your attitudes to wealth?
The only wealthy people we knew were white people my parents worked for. They were racist, but not bitterly so. We just didn’t believe wealthy people knew God. Wealth was anathema to a humble Christian life of chastity and prayer.
How strict was the moral code?
It was very strict. We were discouraged from holding a girl’s hand. We couldn’t play sport. We did sneak out to the movies a couple of times. I first went when I was 13. It was fantastic, I saw 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and From Russia With Love, but I was so afraid Jesus would come back to earth while I was in the theatre and then I would go straight to hell.
You led meetings as a teenager, didn’t you?
I did. Around age 14 I started leading young people unofficially – they just kind of congregated around me wherever I was, and we would have prayer meetings and Bible studies and we would fast. I ran my first evangelistic meeting when I was 16.
When did you first feel called to be a minister?
Even as early as kindergarten I was pretty convinced that I had a touch on my life. A lot of the older saints would say: “Boy, you got the Lord’s hand on you.” So I grew up with a real strong sense of self-worth. Never did drugs, never did drink, never “fornicated”, fearing I would lose my place in God’s line-up if I sinned.
You went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa – Oral Roberts being a very successful televangelist, healer and pioneer of prosperity theology. Can you tell us something about him?
He was our hero. My mother had been supporting his ministry with $5 or $10 when she could for years. She took me to a concert of the college choir when I was about 14. We loved the anointing that we perceived on them. By the time I went to the university in 1971, he was the number one television programme on Sunday mornings in America.
The first day I met him he shook my hand and the first thing out of his mouth was: “Do you sing?” Oral connected with me and we became increasingly close – in some ways he was closer to me than his own son. I travelled a lot with him and the choir, singing and preaching.
In 1974 he said to me: “I need a black son. You’re my black son.” I started a choir on campus called Souls A’ Fire Choir – it’s still in existence today. We appeared on his weekly television shows and hour-long specials, and recorded albums.
It must have been very different from the life you’d known.
Incredibly different. The university itself looked like it had landed there the night before from another planet. For an 18-year-old kid raised in the ghettos of San Diego it looked pretty phenomenal. And within a year I was flying on the private university jet with Oral.
He preached that God blesses the faithful with material prosperity, right?
Yes. He wasn’t as emphatic as some today, but he was a shock. One of his themes was “God ain’t poor no more”, and poverty was all we’d ever known. We thought it was a little worldly, but I wasn’t offended because he was gentle and kind, and we all wanted it.
You worked for Oral Roberts after university and then founded your own church, Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center, in Tulsa, in 1981…
Well, first I founded Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Ministries in 1977, and traveled as an evangelist and then I started the church.
That must have taken some faith and courage.
Both. It was very painful starting on my own. Oral didn’t want me to leave. It was a huge step. I rented a little office that cost me $160 a month. The church again was another step of faith, but by then I had a little following.
What was the church like?
We started with one home meeting, a dozen or so people. Later that year, I rented a little place that seated probably 150 people, a store front in Jenks, a little town just south of the city that actually had a law on its books that said no blacks could be in there past six o’clock at night.
I had mostly a white following, and mostly kids. It was high energy. We had 75-80 that first Sunday; within a year, we had 1,000 people coming.
And it was incredibly successful?
Very successful. We were knocking out walls, creating traffic jams out in front of that little place. You’d see people dressed in Nigerian outfits, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans. It was the first multi-cultural church under a black man’s leadership in Oklahoma history.
On a Sunday, four to six thousand would come, between the three services. I was hosting TBN [Trinity Broadcasting Network] for several years and that made me popular, made the church popular. Then I started having these big conferences. I had 40 to 50 staff.
And you had access to the White House?
Yes, I was one of very few African American republicans. I went to George [W] Bush’s home when he was still the governor of Texas and was considering running. I had known his father, and got invited to the [George] Herbert W Bush White House several times. I met the Clintons in Oklahoma when Billy Graham and I were doing a big memorial thing for the Oklahoma bombing. I was doing PTL [Praise the Lord] with Jim and Tammy Bakker, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, so there weren’t many blacks in as wide a circulation in the charismatic community as I was.
How did it feel to be such a celebrated preacher?
It felt incredible. I was flying across the country and the world. I wanted to bridge the gap between the black and white church. When I started the Azusa conference in 1988 that became a real catalyst. I’d been on TV, I’d been recording, I’d written eight or 10 books. I was trying to pull the different movements together.
So how did your life come to change so drastically?
My kids were real small. My daughter, who’s now 16, was an infant in my lap. And I was watching the evening news, about the Hutus and Tutsis returning to Uganda. I was angry with God and very disgruntled – these poor African people were suffering so violently and I was overwhelmed with compassion and grief and guilt and anger.
I thought: “I’m here with this little fat-cheeked baby, and I’m eating my dinner watching the news in my lovely home, Mercedes in the garage, beautiful wife, everything going great.” I looked at children like my daughter, with flies around their eyes. And I assumed they were non-Christians under the judgment of God and going to hell.
You could see the little babies’ bellies distended and swollen, and they were scratching and crying and their mother was sitting there with this blank expression on her face, with her breast deflated, the child pulling at it, no milk. I thought, they’re probably Muslims or into Juju, they’re headed to hell.
I said to God: “How could you allow that? Call yourself a God of love? You let those poor people suffer, then suck ’em right into hell.”
And that’s when I felt I heard God say: “So that’s what you think we’re doing?”
I said: “Well that’s what the Bible says. They’re not Christians. They’re going to hell.”
“Can’t you see they’re already there? That is hell and I’m pulling them out of there, out of that place that you as humans have created for them and yourselves.”
I’d never thought of it that way before. I got excited about that and I shared it in my pulpit the next Sunday. And bam! I thought they were all going to get it like I got it. Nobody got it but me – and I really got it! Some did, but those who didn’t expressed their disdain to others and things began to go downhill fast.
I started telling our congregants to stop telling people they weren’t saved and start telling them they were safe with God, because with Jesus their sins were already washed away and they didn’t know it, and our job was to tell them. I don’t care if they’ve got a needle hanging in their vein or they’re HIV positive, tell them they’re loved and forgiven. That was the beginning of the gospel of inclusion that got me in so much trouble.
I was telling that to my own church, people took the cassettes, they got excited about it, started sharing it with other people. Pastors heard it, they said: “That sounds like New Age. Carlton Pearson’s teaching error.”
And people left the church?
By the thousands. I started getting calls from pastors, all the movers and shakers in the charismatic/Pentecostal world: “What are you preaching over there?” Christians are so devoted to hell you wouldn’t believe it, buddy. They would defend a literal customised torture chamber more than they would defend Jesus or the cross.
People kept trickling off. I started laying staff off. I went from [paying] $100,000 a month in salaries to $20-30,000. We tried our best to save the property but we couldn’t refinance it, eventually we had to walk away. That was a very sad moment.
I was running for mayor at that time. Tulsa had the worst race riot in American history in 1922, and my slogan was “One Tulsa”. I was going to make this a big inclusive town with a black republican pastoral mayor, but my Christian base pulled out right in the middle of the election. So I knew I’d either win the election and be able to put that message out there, or lose the election, based on this message, which would get it out there.
There was more happening in me than to me. The world saw only what was happening to me: he’s lost his church, is he going to lose his marriage? He’s lost his ministry, he’s lost his mind. But nobody knew what was happening inside me and that’s where my core essence and energy was focussed. I don’t even care that they don’t like me anymore, I don’t want that. I don’t believe in that God, I don’t believe in that way of being. So it wasn’t as hard on me as it appeared externally because so much was happening to me internally.
Who is the God you believe in?
The way I look at it now, you can experience God and never know God or even know that you’re experiencing God. The way to know God is to know yourself. If you’re created in the image and likeness of God then you’re the closest to God you’re ever going to get. So study yourself – investigate, interrogate, excavate your own soul – even if something has died in you, do an autopsy. Don’t tell me the disease, tell me what caused the disease that brought death to your relationship with you. And that God expresses itself to you, through you, and as me. We’re all inextricably connected.
And the rest of it is mystery. Embrace that. But the more I get to know me the more I know God.
Do you still want people to become Christians?
No. I would like for them to be followers of Christ – the Christ principle if not the person – some people are not into Jesus. I don’t believe that Jesus came to protect us from God but to reconnect us to God in consciousness.
My objective now is to help free people from religious tyranny. People are getting free. I don’t have official altar calls like I did, but people come to me with tears in their eyes and say: “I’ve struggled with this for years. Now I realise I’m not the only one thinking this stuff. Thank you, Bishop, for allowing us to think out loud and for knowing we’re not crazy.”
What is your church like today?
I started a ministry here in Chicago, called New Dimensions Chicago. We’re small but have been having the fastest growth since we moved downtown into a more integrated neighbourhood. People are coming. We have eight or 10 new visitors every week, and they’re coming back. I believe Chicago should have the largest most diverse spiritual community in the country and it doesn’t. It’s very segregated so that’s a priority. We seek to be the friendliest, trendiest and most radically inclusive spiritual community in the area.
The services are only an hour and a half – my sermons used to be that long. They’re more multicultural and metaphysical. Not the wild Pentecostal emotion – the intensity and the spiritual transcendence is there, just not the excess.
I’ve personally evolved, and continue to. I’m not parking anywhere.
This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Reform.