(Warning: This piece addresses the content and construction of the movie and not necessarily the completely historically accurate events that took place. Additionally, there is discussion that will spoil portions of the story if one has not viewed the film.)
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and watch Netflix's newest original movie Come Sunday. The film is directed by Joshua Marston and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave). As an ordained baptist minister myself, this movie was of particular intrigue. I didn't know a great deal about Bishop Carlton Pearson's story, but I did have the privilege of discussing the film beforehand with seasoned ministers and pastors. Their insights were particularly helpful going into this dramatization, which I had only seen the trailer for at that time. They were able to recall what that was like at the time because they were alive and of developed mind to witness it.
As I sat down to watch it with my significant other, who actually did not know that the movie was based on a true story, I thought, as I always do, about the implications this movie has for the twenty first century church and my own ministry. "I'm spiritual, not religious," is the tagline of the era, which opens the door for an influx of important questions. In a society, in the west, that is increasingly non-Christian and non-religious, what is the role of the Christian church? What does the church have to offer to the world that no one and no other entity can provide? How should those who identify as Christian operate in this climate. What will my ministry look like five years from now? Who will I be ministering to? At such a young age, had I been called by God because of the decline in participation in organized religion?
Before I really try to answer any of those questions from my perspective, which is also too much to fully explore in one post, I want to talk about the film and the portrayals of the real life human beings involved. The film is flawed in its pacing, an opinion I share with the person I watched it with, but it makes up for it in really emotionally gripping character performances. The tension is felt. The internal struggle (not just from Bishop Pearson) is felt. The spirituality is felt.
Ejiofor captivates you from his first appearance on screen and refuses to relinquish that hold. Bishop Pearson's wife Gina, who is played by Condola Rashad, is a surprisingly stand out performance. It appeared as though her character would be in the background to be seen and not heard. It turns out, however, that she confronts her husband's apparent neglect of her and their family and becomes his rock as most others look to be jumping ship, so to speak. Lakeith Stanfield plays Reggie, who is a half-way closeted gay man, the quintessential tortured soul. He is also suffering from the effects of having HIV. The performance alone helps to elevate his story as just as compelling as the main narrative of Bishop Pearson. Oral Roberts is the typical "evangelical," but Martin Sheen's depiction of him possesses a gravity that shines a light on the deeply held moralistic convictions of someone like Roberts that supersedes family ties and relationships (including the one with Christ). Henry, Bishop Pearson's most trusted advisor and friend, is portrayed by Jason Seagal, who is normally known for comedy. In this role, he along with Ejiofor depict the tragedy and heartbreak of a deeply intimate friendship completely fractured by varying faith trajectories. In one of the more tragic roles, Danny Glover portrays the uncle of Bishop Pearson, Quincy. More so than the movies direction, in my opinion, Glover's performance literally foreshadows everything that we see next. His acknowledgement that Carlton will not help him with the parole board is a subtle nod to his eventual suicide. He is in the movie less than 5 minutes, but they are some of the most important moments in the entire movie.
The actors certainly brought the true story to life on the screen, but the story itself is compelling enough. I think it is appropriate to begin with the fact that Bishop Pearson's church, Higher Dimensions Family Church, was a legitimately interracial congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma of all places. For anyone that knows the history of Tulsa, Oklahoma as it relates to race, you can understand why I would say "of all places." Tulsa was home to one of the worst "race riots" in United States history. It was actually not a "race riot" but it was an attempt by the white residents of the town who formed a mob in 1921 to eliminate the thriving African American community of Greenwood, called Black Wall Street, that existed there. For Bishop Pearson and company to have formed an interracial megachurch congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma is astounding to me.
Another component that led to my amazement at this interracial congregation is the reality of who the leader was. Due to the history of race and racism in the United States, what became affectionately known, studied, and lauded as The Black Church, came into being. Another example of creating spaces that are distinctively your own when the majority society/culture seeks to alienate you from participation in the already established spaces. Black people or African Americans were historically barred from worshipping in white churches, but in the Black Church there was no such discrimination against anyone. Ironically, when white churches, generally speaking, opened their doors to all people regardless of race, interracial congregations came into being. In most cases the pastor or senior leader of these congregations is a white man. That reality continues to change (T.D. Jakes being the most prominent modern day example), but at the time that Bishop Pearson was leading his congregation it was far more rare. This is actually a subtle statement made in the movie, as the first congregants to abandon Bishop Pearson were white and the small remnant (there is always a remnant) that remained were almost entirely Black, if not completely.
Before the number of people who occupy the church on Sunday morning begins to dwindle, Bishop Pearson believes that God has provided him with a revelation. His uncle's suicide initiates this transformational process. He deals mainly with the guilt of being able to help him and refusing to do so. He even confesses this to his mother, played by Tonea Stewart, as they reminisce about his life. Things intensify for him spiritually when he witnesses the television coverage of the genocide in Rwanda. He sees children literally dying and innocent people being slaughtered. He can visibly be seen wrestling with his faith in that very moment. God wouldn't condemn all of these children, these people, to hell because they had not been saved, would "He?" Bishop Pearson then has a revelation offscreen that everyone is already saved and no one will be condemned to an eternity in hell. He goes into intense fasting and prayer to make sure that he has truly heard from God. His revelation does not change and he goes before his congregation with it.
The seeds of discord are then planted, as congregants are uneasy and his trusted advisor/friend Henry feels blindsided and eventually betrayed. During the week, his mentor, Oral Roberts, who earlier in the movie, in a cringeworthy way, refers to Pearson as his "black son" tells him flat out that he needs to recant everything he said "come Sunday." The relationship between Pearson and Roberts portrayed in the movie is quite fascinating. In many ways Pearson appears to be the son Roberts never had, as his eldest son, whom he rejects after coming out as a gay man, ends up committing suicide, and his other son Richard, who appears in the movie and condemns Pearson and his newfound revelation (Pearson even makes a remark to his wife that has waited 25 years for an opportunity to attack him), eventually gets in trouble of the financial embezzlement variety. Nevertheless, when Sunday does come, Bishop Pearson begins to waver in his revelation before finding the wherewithal, or, better yet, the Spirit to stand firm in what God has given him to preach. He doubles down and begins to preach and sing as he did before, all with the same fervor.
I appreciated the depiction of Bishop Pearson not just conjecturing. He goes back that next Sunday and uses scripture that points to Jesus' salvific work on the cross as being for the world or "all creation." Some of the scriptures he uses are 1 John 2:1-2 and 1 Timothy 4:10. He does this while also acknowledging how scripture can be contradictory, as other accounts in scripture speak of Jesus' work of salvation being for those who confess their sins and believe in him. There is genuine spiritual progression that takes place over the course of the film.
The ramifications of his insistence are immense. He is even called upon to appear before the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops, who are looking for answers. The scene is far more intense than a simple conversation or a presentation to peers. It is almost as if he is before a tribunal that will decide whether he is excommunicated from the faith (of course they and no one have the authority to do so). He loses members at a rapid rate. His relationships, even within the community outside of the church, are strained. He is alienated from Roberts. Henry and some associates decide to leave Higher Dimensions and start a church across town that ends up growing in attendance while Higher Dimensions is on a steady decline. He eventually loses the church building and even his beautiful home. His relationship with his director of music, Reggie, becomes incredibly challenged as well, with all the layers that entails. The one constant and bright spot throughout the entire ordeal as depicted in the movie, is his wife, Gina and his clear conscious before God. And honestly, that's the way it should be in the end.
Much of the movie focuses on the consequences and eventually we get to the hope in the midst of it all. Most of the consequences point to what we talk about in the church as worldly definitions of success. His large church building and bloated congregation are ways in which we perceive a successful ministry. Is that what God saw though? In addition, his beautiful home and standing within the community were hallmarks of a successful person, let alone a successful minister. These factors provided him with legitimacy and a platform some only dream of. I believe, however, that it is a testament to how God works that Bishop Pearson comes out of this period with a greater relationship with his wife, with a greater appreciation for his family, and with an entirely new prism to minister within and audience to minister to (as we see in the final scene). Furthermore, the strained relationship he had with Reggie is restored. Bishop Pearson is forced to confront his own religiously formulated homophobia and just how damaging some of his words and teachings to Reggie have been. He has long told Reggie that there is difference between "being gay" and "doing gay." Reggie calls him out on that towards the end of the film, as they both reconcile with one another. It is truly powerful.
This story is so relevant today. The movie caused me to think about my own spiritual journey and progression. While I do believe in a heaven and a hell, my understanding of hell is probably much different than what people will commonly associate with it (it is quite simply complete alienation from God). I also have a slightly different view of salvation, which is supported by scripture. Some of this has come about due to experiences and revelations that God has given me. For example, many malign our homosexual sisters and brothers and speak of their condemnation so casually and with such certainty. While as a teenager I may have shared these views, I have long since evolved from that place. I choose love over anything else, which is the greatest command Jesus gave us. I know plenty of gay and lesbian Christians who are far better "Christians," or exemplify what that truly means, than many heterosexual Christians I know. The other component that goes along with that is the blatant hypocrisy. There is a incessant need some people have to point out other people's sins or their perceived sins, while they ignore other kinds of sin as well as their own (especially those mentioned time and time again throughout scripture, i.e. failure to protect/care and provide justice for the widow, orphan, the foreigner, which are the most vulnerable of society during the writing of scripture, and the "least of these").
Additionally, someone can claim to be Christian or can be saved, but if they just do what they want to do, does that mean they are going to heaven while someone that is gay or lesbian does not? If they just do whatever they want but they are saved, does that mean that they are headed to heaven, while someone, even a child, who dies without ever hearing the "Good News" is going to hell? The bottom line, as it relates to this, is that I do not have a heaven or hell to put anyone in. None of us do. I believe that even Christians, those of us who have repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord and Savior, are not done as it relates to becoming saved. We are all sinners and therefore we fall short of God's glory. I believe that we are being saved. We are in a continuous process of being saved. It's a true paradox. We are all at once saved and are still being saved. It is also because of this that I have humbled myself to the understanding that God is supreme. God saves, not you or I. Once again, I don't have a heaven or hell to put anyone in, including myself. I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, but that is the truth for me. We put limits on God, but God's love and grace far exceed any of our human limitations and capacities. The scope of The Lord's salvific work is also beyond our comprehension, as the creation. Only God knows, and I am perfectly fine with that uncertainty.
I believe God revealed this unconditional and truly unlimited love and grace to Bishop Pearson decades ago. His story is being retold now, and I believe that there has not been a more relevant time to do so. This film, while not perfect, compellingly depicts the true story behind a spiritual leaders spiritual awakening that has ramifications for the church and the whole of our society today.