(RNS) — In a video released shortly before he died, Bishop Carlton Pearson described the kind of memorial service he hoped for. It would be “slammin,” he said, with gospel musicians and a eulogy from his longtime friend Bishop Yvette Flunder.
“I want to see the excellence of what we are, what we do under the anointing with class,” he said in the YouTube video recorded from his hospice room and released by Larry Reid Live. “I want to show diversity.”
In the days since Pearson died on Nov. 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the how and where and with whom to celebrate the life of the controversial preacher and musician has become a point of contention among the many communities, some at odds with each other, who are grieving his death from cancer at age 70.
There are now three churches planning services in Tulsa and two in Atlanta. Flunder will not appear at any of the services in Tulsa. At the root of the separate services is also what caused the rifts in Pearson’s own life: a rejection of hell and an embrace of an inclusive gospel that saw legitimacy in a range of religions and identities.
“(T)he whole world is saved, but they just don’t know it,” Pearson famously said after his theological shift in his 2006 book, “The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self.”
Pearson, who went from being hailed as a minister and musician to being labeled a “heretic” by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004, was raised in the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly Black denomination, and became an associate evangelist with the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association and a member of the White House’s first faith-based advisory council under the George W. Bush administration.
While leading the interracial Higher Dimensions Family Church, he announced that he no longer believed in a literal hell. When Pearson’s theology changed, some who attended Higher Dimensions, back in the 2000s and more recently, moved to Transformation Church, a predominantly Black, nondenominational megachurch now co-led by Pastor Michael Todd.
It’s at that church where one of the Tulsa services will be held. Several people, including Reid and faith leaders who spoke with Religion News Service, said organizers of the Transformation Church service, set for noon Friday (Dec. 1), have made it clear that the word “inclusion” is not to be uttered.
That is not what Pearson told her he wanted, said Flunder, the leader of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, an organization whose congregations are predominantly African American and led by LGBTQ or LGBTQ-affirming clergy.
“That was not what he asked me to do,” said Flunder, describing how she had wanted to fulfill Pearson’s wishes. “And that is to speak out loud about the gospel of inclusion, to speak out loud about an understanding of God that is big enough and broad enough to welcome people.”
Flunder, who said she had long expected to preach Pearson’s eulogy at his request, told RNS she was disinvited by the organizers of the Transformation Church memorial service.
“I could be present but I could not speak,” she said.
Transformation Church did not respond to questions regarding the matter of inclusion, Flunder’s participation or whether or not they disinvited her.
It did acknowledge the range of Tulsa services occurring to honor Pearson.
“Both our lead Pastor Michael Todd and our founding leader, Bishop Gary McIntosh, had the privilege of serving at Higher Dimensions for years under Bishop Carlton D. Pearson’s leadership,” the church stated. “The loss of Bishop Carlton D. Pearson deeply saddens us. His cherished daughter is a devoted member of our church, and in this time of grief, we aim to extend our support and comfort to their family. Recognizing the decades of profound influence Bishop Pearson has had within the body of Christ; we anticipate the gathering of thousands at his memorial services from November 29th to December 1st, 2023.”
For her part, Flunder told RNS she has decided to forgo appearing at any services for her friend and colleague in Tulsa, though she was invited to eulogize him at an interfaith service set for Thursday at All Souls Unitarian Church. Pearson was an affiliate minister who preached regularly there.
Instead, she, Reid and others are planning a large event on Dec. 18 at Gas South Arena in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth. The website for the “Azusa Life Celebration Honoring Bishop Carlton Pearson” includes registration pages for choir participants, VIPs and general admission. Flunder confirmed she is contributing $10,000 to what Reid described as a “six-figure” event.
Reid, an online commentator and minister, in a lengthier video, agreed with Flunder about Pearson’s wishes, which he said the minister and musician asked him to record.
“It’s like he knew that there would be an issue with celebrating him between the two bodies of people that loved him,” Reid said in a YouTube video posted on Monday. “And from his bed of transition, he created a plan and now we are carrying it out.”
A second and sooner Atlanta-area service for Pearson has been announced on the website of Spirit & Truth Sanctuary, where D.E. Paulk is the senior pastor.
In Tulsa, the services also include a gospel-music-centered concert hosted by Greater Grace Temple, a predominantly Black congregation, at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Its pastor, Donald O’Neil Tyler, said he expects additional services could take place in honor of his friend, who was known for leading Azusa annual conferences that drew thousands to Oral Roberts University and helping musicians and ministers gain fame there.
“He’s just a worldwide pastor, evangelist, minister,” said Tyler. “People loved him everywhere he went. His ministry grew and grew and grew, even when his doctrine transferred.”
The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian, said the various Tulsa services reflect a concerted effort by leaders of a community in mourning, some of whom wanted to hold solely Christian services and others who supported Pearson’s respect for many faiths and perspectives.
All Souls is where Pearson’s body is to lie in repose through Thursday, before and after the interfaith service there. Tentative plans for the service, where Lavanhar is set to be the eulogist, include readings from Christian, Jewish and Islamic scriptures and remarks from a minister in the New Thought movement, a positive-thinking tradition that Pearson embraced as his theology changed.
“Many people imagined that we would have one big service to celebrate Bishop Pearson’s life,” Lavanhar said in an interview. “However, when the family came together after he died, there was a realization that there were multiple communities and constituencies that he served and that loved him and that there was no way to make it all fit into one service.”
Lavanhar added that he suspects Pearson would not be surprised by the range of services in his honor.
“I know he is smiling down on all of these services for what they mean to those people and how they are a celebration of a part of who he was to people he loved.”