(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.