The last time I went to my old downtown church was in 2008, the same year Carlton Pearson and his ministry held services at All Souls for the first time.
I was in the basement fellowship hall eating a Wednesday night dinner, probably spaghetti, no meatballs, and an uninspired iceberg lettuce salad. I was number seven at a table for eight, which made me a single with three couples. Although the room was crowded, no one sat next to me. Middle-aged women without their husbands were regarded with suspicion. One of the couples at our table was the new assistant minister and his wife, and their presence brought out the worst in competitive religiosity. I couldn’t compete with the Sunday School classes my table mates taught, the Bible studies they led, or the number of years they had spent at this church. When asked where my husband was, I said he was at Temple Israel with his three daughters.
“So he’s Jewish?” someone asked.
“He’s not, but his ex-wife is, so my stepdaughters are Jewish and we support that,” I said, feeling defensive and disliking it.
There were other things that bothered me about my church: I worked at a nonprofit that supported people with HIV Aids and for the first time in my life, I was constantly around gay people, some who I’d grown close to. When I looked around the pews during Sunday services, I could not imagine my gay friends being welcomed in this church.
If they weren’t wanted, I didn’t want to be there either.
Also, every Sunday the minister asked something new of his congregants. We were told to pray more, to read the Bible more, to use our gifts more generously. It seemed we were never good enough, no matter how hard we tried.
Just once, I wanted to hear that I was good enough and loved for being myself.
Following Bishop Carlton Pearson
Around the same time, I read an article in the Tulsa World that All Souls would hold its first service combining its Unitarian theology with the contemporary worship style of its Pentecostal guests. For years, those guests had been searching for a church home, wandering around Tulsa like Jews in the wilderness since their Moses, Bishop Carlton Pearson, had lost his mega church, Higher Dimensions.
“I’ve got to see this,” I told my husband Gary. “The only time I went to a service at All Souls, everyone looked like Presbyterians, only in Birkenstocks. This is going to be interesting.”
I had followed the Bishop Pearson story in the World since his abdication from his denomination. I admired his courage. Being a former Tulsa World reporter, I envied my friend Bill Sherman, who was covering the story. It was the most interesting story in the Religion section since God had told Oral Roberts to build the City of Faith.
Bumpin’ with Gusto
So Gary and I went to the first Unitarian/Pentecostal service at All Souls. It was packed full. I sat next to a woman about my age, a tall and smartly-dressed African American woman with beautiful high cheekbones. The air in the sanctuary was electric. The music director was on fire with energy. I had never been in a service where people talked back to the minister during his sermon, but I had seen it in movies. I was intrigued with shouts of “Preach it” and “That’s right” and “Go on.” So when Pastor David Smith played a song “You’ve got to clap when the spirit says clap,” and came to the verse “You’ve got to dance when the spirit says dance,” I was really into it. I tried to do the bump with Gary, but he refused to bump back. I turned to the woman on my right. “You want to do the bump?” I asked, and she raised her eyebrows at me the way my mother used to. Undeterred, I said, “You can’t tell me you don’t know how to do the bump.”
She bumped me hard, and months later, when we became friends, she told me she’d thought, I’m going to bump this little gray-haired lady down the pew and out the window!
Hooters and Heaven
When the service ended, Gary turned to me and said,
“This is what real life looks like and this is what a church should look like too. I like it.”
We attended the lunch that was served in Emerson Hall after the service and sat next to an older single man who introduced himself as Jim Frizley. He told me he had been in the construction business and had recently retired. I asked him how he liked to spend his time, now that he had more of it.
“I like to play golf, go out with my friends, and then once or twice a week I go to Hooters. I need that,” he said.
I had the feeling that my feminism was being tested but decided to not take the bait. “I hear they have good hamburgers,” I replied.
He laughed. “That’s not what I go there for,” he said.
When I compared the competitive religiosity of my downtown church with the freedom and ease of an older man discussing his sexual needs over lunch in the middle of a church fellowship hall, well, All Souls won. Gary and I signed up for the “Roots” class and “All Souls 101,” joined as soon as we graduated, pledged, and never looked back.
Thank you, All Souls, for enriching our lives in innumerable ways.
And thank you, Jim Frizley, for being your unfiltered self that day at lunch. On January 19, Jim died. No doubt he has found a heavenly Hooters with waitresses in wings and, of course, good hamburgers too.
Come Sunday, the film about Rev. Carlton Pearson, will release on Netflix on April 13. Come Sunday is based on true events about the globally-renowned pastor Carlton Pearson risking everything when he questions church doctrine and is branded a modern-day heretic.
Rev. Pearson joined All Souls in 2008 and preaches in the Contemporary service twice a month. Join us in-person in the Contemporary Service at 11:30 a.m. or on live stream at allsoulschurch.org/live.