When I embraced the Gospel of Inclusion fourteen years ago, I didn’t know turbulent times were ahead. I didn’t know the killings of unarmed black people would spark the Black Lives Matter movement. I didn’t know there would be a massacre at a gay bar in Orlando. I didn’t know Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for President. In 2002, I had no sense of this future; I knew only my church, Higher Dimensions, was falling apart and my pastor, Bishop Carlton Pearson, was being branded a heretic.
I grew up in the most conservative of Christian traditions. I was trained to identify and avoid unbelievers. I learned to walk a tight-rope toward an unattainable, yet mandatory, righteousness. We were technically non-violent, yet we sang about being soldiers in the army of the Lord. We made frequent references to Satan as our enemy. Our religious culture was peppered with confrontational and militaristic metaphors. This righteousness and style of worship is a reflection of our conservative Christian impulse to summarily destroy all opposition to our God.
As a young adult, I joined Higher Dimensions Church. In the late 1980s, Higher D, as it was commonly referred to, was at the epicenter of the Evangelical Right. It was a sophisticated version of my childhood church with familiar beliefs and practices. There was a definite sense that we were the Believers, the Redeemed, the Moral Elite. We Christians were called to evangelize a sinful and backward world, to win souls, and to bring the Light.
But even then reality began to challenge and chip away at my religious assumptions. During graduate school, I met and interacted with gays, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and people from around the world whose dearly-held truths were different from mine. I met Muslims from Malaysia, and same-gender-loving people who craved the dignity of a family life that I enjoyed. These people, all of whom my Evangelical church labeled “other,” were human beings whose hearts I could feel. I thought it was a pity they were all going to Hell. I secretly wrestled with this assumption of damnation until sometime in 2001.
On a Sunday morning in 2001, Bishop Carlton Pearson stood before an attentive congregation of thousands and asked a question that would change his life, and mine, forever—“What if no one goes to Hell?” Squirming in our seats, most were appalled at the suggestion. That was made clear by the exodus that soon followed. Within months, Higher D was largely empty. Some of us, however, leaned in. His daring question opened a floodgate of curiosity and freed me to search for my own answer.
I was startled to find many of my inherited beliefs, including my belief in Hell, had nothing at all to do with Jesus Christ. Instead, Hell was a man-made place contrived for the many categories of others less favored than us Christians. A few poorly-translated scriptures in the Bible clearly seem to support the idea of a literal Hell— a holy convenience to those for whom Hell is indispensable. Pearson’s watershed question sparked other questions, one of which, for me, was transformative – “Can a need for Hell coexist alongside genuine love for all people?” My answer? “No.”
Fourteen years after leaning into Bishop Pearson’s Gospel of Inclusion, the title he gave his new way of teaching, and as a member of All Souls, I find myself in both a world which frightens me and a part of a community which inspires me. Never mind the Biblical sense of Hell. My idea of Hell is the reality a racist bigot who is known to despise the “other”— Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, and women for example — could become the next President of the United States.
Yet, I am inspired by the community to which I now belong at All Souls. A community where everyone, and no one, is “other.” Our congregation flourishes through its diversity. We are Christians, Jews, Atheists, and Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Pentecostals, and Catholics. We are gay, straight, and inclusive of identity choices. We are white, black, Latino, Asian, and Native American. We are Americans by birth and by choice and neighbors from other nations. We represent and celebrate the many faces of God.
Fourteen years ago, my church was falling apart and my pastor was branded a heretic. Today, I belong to a church were everyone is included in God’s love. There remains a battlefield and an enemy, but the fight is not against other humans or religions. It is a fight to prove that where there is indifference, love can persist and prevail. I am an Inclusionist and I am called to evangelize a sinful and backward world, to win souls, to bring this inclusive Light through love beyond belief.