“What would you do if a bus filled with African-American Universalist Christians arrived at your congregation one Sunday morning interested in joining your congregation?” This question was one of many posed to me by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). One of the final requirements for receiving “ministerial fellowship” with the Unitarian Universalist Association is to sit before the MFC for approximately an hour and respond to whatever questions the committee members think might be interesting, helpful, or provocative to ask about your competency to serve a UU minister.
This question was not theoretical. The story is the subject of a new film titled Come Sunday, which is scheduled to be released on Netflix this Friday, April 13, 2018. (I was given permission to screen the film a few days early for this review.)
My wife and I both found the film fascinating. Most of what I knew before watching the film was the “rest of the story”: what happened once the remnants of Bishop Carlton Pearson’s former Pentecostal megachurch began attending All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Unitarian Universalism is a theologically liberal religious movement, and most people wouldn’t guess that the largest UU congregation in the world happens to be in Tulsa, Oklahoma.) At the time, UU Tulsa had 1,800 members and almost all of them were white and upper-middle-class. Suddenly, “some 200 Pentecostal Universalist Christians—most of them African American—began attending the 88-year-old church en masse.”
The film gestures toward that part of the story only at the end. As the screen fades to black, an epilogue reads: “Carlton Pearson still lives in Tulsa, where he ministers at All Souls Unitarian Church.” The film itself is prequel of sorts to the part of the story that I knew. And if after watching the film you want to learn more, I recommend the article, “The Gospel of Inclusion: A black Pentecostal bishop embraces Universalism, befriends a Unitarian minister, and shakes up the largest congregation in the UUA.”
Turning to the film itself, one of the aspects that I most appreciated was the incredible cast:
- Chiwetel Ejiofor was a great choice to play the charismatic Bishop Carlton Pearson. (You may know Ejiofor from his powerful and heartbreaking role as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.)
- Condola Rashad, though less well known, is also compelling as Gina Pearson, Carlton’s wife.
- Pearson’s mentor, Oral Roberts, is played by none other than Martin Sheen—or as I and many other will forever think of him, President Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing.
- Perhaps the most surprising casting is Jason Segel as Pearson’s long-time colleague (and former roommate from Oral Roberts University). And although my first associations with Segel continue to be the tragically short-lived Freaks and Geeks as well as films like Knocked Up, a more restrained Segel does a moving job in this role.
- Finally, although it is a minor part (though impactful on the plot), it is noteworthy that Pearson’s uncle is played by Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon fame.
So the film is well worth watching for the cast alone.
But the real reason to watch Come Sunday is the theological struggle. At the beginning of the movie, Bishop Carlton Pearson is a wildly successful megachurch pastor with the promise of much more growth, fame, and fortune to come. But the story quickly moves to his crisis of faith in which he finds himself asking how God could damn anyone to eternal torment in hell for what at most could be finite sins during one’s comparatively short life on this earth. He comes to think, “that God is a monster worse than Hitler and Saddam Hussein.”
More significantly, during this crisis of faith, Bishop Pearson says that he “felt God’s love and heard his voice” saying that hell does not exist. As one of my college professors used to say, “Is reality really about ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ or is the truth more like ‘God in the hands of angry sinners’?” Pearson, who had been trained to be theologically orthodox, suddenly and shockingly came to see himself preaching the s0-called heresy of universalism: rejecting the existence of hell and believing in universal salvation for all people. (There’s literally a heresy trial in this film!)
The consequences of his crisis deepen when the vast majority of his congregation leaves in light of his new insight. A megachurch is typically defined as more than 2,000 members, but there is a reason only 200 people (less than 10 percent of his former flock) were around by the time Pearson arrived at All Souls Unitarian. The title of the film comes from Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen) calling his protege to recant: “Come Sunday you’ll make this right.” But Pearson’s conscience will not allow him to deny his conviction.
In the midst of this controversy—in one among many moving scenes in the film— Pearson calls Henry (Jason Segel) forward in the middle of the Sunday service to read a passage of scripture from 1 John 2:
1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Ironically, although Pearson is reading the words of the Bible verbatim, he is accused of “re-writing scripture.” He replies that he is merely re-reading it–noticing anew these and other universalist-themed passages that had always been there, but that he had never fully paid attention to before.
There is much more to be said about this film, but I will close with what I have been thinking the last few days after viewing it. Given the deeply divided state of our country today, Bishop Pearson’s story may be more relevant than ever. Come Sunday is a powerful tale of conversion from a “Gospel of Exclusion” (if you don’t convert to my particular, orthodox version of Christianity, then you will be damned to hell for all eternity) to what he calls a Gospel of Inclusion.
But even if a theological conservative does become more open-minded, it remains the case in the words of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” In other words, we are divided not only as liberal and conservative, but also along other lines such as race and class. So I hope Come Sunday is viewed widely, and that it helps give more people permission to ask hard theological questions. But the film leaves those of us who are part of (currently) majority-white, theologically liberal congregations with the question of “What would you do if a bus filled with African-American Universalists arrived one Sunday morning interested in joining your congregation?” My answer to the MFC was that we must commit to the work of dismantling racism and white supremacy in ourselves and our institutions if we are to have any hope that “Come Sunday” we will be prepared to offer an authentic, hospitable multicultural welcome.
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles