Marlin Lavanhar All Souls
UU Church Today, Practice & Voice

Opening Doors for a New Home

In 2001, President George W. Bush’s “Faith Based Initiative” was the hot topic in the media. Tulsa’s Channel 6 invited me, to debate New Dimensions Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson. I stood against, he stood in favor.  This pairing was nothing new. The media had also pitted my mentor, Rev. Dr. John Wolf, against Bishop Pearson’s mentor Oral Roberts, many times before. That was the first time I met Bishop Pearson. A lot then changed from 2001 to 2006.

Read Bishop Carlton Pearson’s perspective in our 4-part series, Experimenting to Find our Symphony.

Shift in understanding

By 2006, Bishop Pearson himself was making news. Bishop Pearson had a realization, a shift in understanding and teaching. You see, he no longer believed in Hell. “God loves us all too much to send any of us to hell,” Bishop Pearson was quoted as saying. He called this shift the Gospel of Inclusion. The criticism and accusations of hearsay poured in from all sides. From religious leaders, to former members, to the media, Bishop Pearson found himself with a strong conviction and few standing by him.

After learning about his new theological direction, I reached out and invited him and the New Dimensions Chorale to share a service with us at All Souls. Bishop Pearson and my relationship grew. We became friends. So much so, Bishop Pearson was the first of my local colleagues to comfort me and my family the night we lost our daughter.

In 2008, I had written a sermon defending Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The former pastor of President Barack Obama was in the throes of being crucified by the media for the statements he had made in his church about race. This act of defense for Rev. Wright meant something else to Bishop Pearson. It opened a door to what could be a new home.

At the time, The New Dimensions congregation was graciously invited to worship at the Trinity Episcopal Church. Bishop Pearson posed this question to me. “We are welcome at Trinity but we are clearly guests.  At All Souls, you have a vision of a multiracial community. We would be more than just guests.  Do you think there’s a chance to host my congregation at All Souls?”

With the support of the Board of Trustees, Bishop Pearson and New Dimensions began holding Sunday services at All Souls. At that point they were a separate church, holding services within our building. By the end of the summer Bishop Pearson announced that he was planning to stop holding services and he and his family were going to join All Souls, enroll their children in our Sunday school, and encourage his church members to do the same.

In September 2008, we held a combined service with the two congregations. There were so many people that they were watching on every available monitor throughout the building. People even jammed into the hallway upstairs to get a peek at the monitor that hung above the water fountain. People were everywhere. Afterward, we all joined together on the All Souls lawn for a lunch prepared by a New Dimensions member and chef.

Step back to see

Let’s stop here and take a step back to see what this blending of our two congregations looked like.

For 87 years, All Souls had been 99.9% white, and mostly upper middle class professionals who enjoyed an intellectual focus in worship. New Dimensions was predominately African American Pentecostal Universalist who worshipped with great expression and enthusiasm.

Suddenly, there was a much wider range of diversity blending socioeconomics, religious beliefs and backgrounds, and a host of other self-identifying factors. All Souls transformed the 11:30 a.m. Sunday service into a blend of the two worship styles. Pastor David Smith eventually became the Director of Worship for All Souls and the New Dimensions Chorale sang each week.

Not everyone from both communities were happy about the additions to each other’s spiritual family. To add to the complexity, at the time, All Souls had an openly lesbian minister and LGBT issues were still new to many of Bishop Pearson’s longtime members. Even though he had been preaching against homophobia, not everyone was ready for a gay minister.

During that first year, about a third of Bishop Pearson’s members continued with All Souls. All Souls saw a gradual trickling away of some longtime members too. Into the second year, the approximate 1800 adults and children who stayed, began a process of articulating a vision for All Soul’s centennial in 2021.

All Soul’s vision includes becoming an intentionally multiracial, multicultural, multigenerational church representing as wide a diversity as we can manage of class, culture, philosophy, theology, politics, sexual orientations, and more.

Navigating complexities

Our efforts to navigate the many cultural complexities of our expanding congregation inspired us to seek out trainings and consultants who could help All Souls build our cultural competencies for leading such a diverse church. One outcome of this movement was the implementation of Rewire and Mosaic.

Rewire is a racial justice group designed for white people to unlearn racism. This program requires a commitment to develop anti-racist identity and provides tools to challenge racism and dismantle systemic racism. Mosaic is a racial justice group designed for people of color to validate and build resilience against racism.  The programs equip participants with tools to effectively challenge racism and develop allies across racial lines.

We embarked on a commitment of the church to expand our cultural competency and continue to grow our capacity as individuals and as a community.

Bishop Pearson and I both believe that many people, in Tulsa, OK and around the world, are looking for a diverse and welcoming community. People want a relevant, progressive, socially engaged, spiritual community that is training leaders for a global society and is also offering opportunities to make a positive difference.

Bishop Pearson is now joining me and my colleague Rev. Barbara Prose as a consistent preacher and teacher at All Souls. We hope to reach more people locally and around the world through our church and our online ministries.  It has already begun. We welcome you to join us as we learn together what it means to love beyond belief.

Read more from our 4-part series:

Bishop Carlton Pearson’s Experimenting to Find our Symphony

Cassandra Austin’s Coming Home from War

Jane Newman’s Reflections on a Journey


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