Considered anomalies on the conservative religious landscape of Oklahoma, the Rev. Robin Meyers and Bishop Carlton Pearson are subjects of a new documentary making its debut Saturday at the deadCenter Film Festival.
"American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel," which is directed by Emmy Award winners Jeanine and Catherine Butler with Butler Films, takes the audience to "the Buckle of the Bible Belt where a group of defiant Oklahomans are rising up to challenge deeply rooted fundamentalist Christian doctrine," according to a film synopsis on the documentary's website.
Meyers, senior pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church-United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, said the film evolved from a chance encounter he had with the directors, particularly Catherine Butler, at a religious conference in San Francisco.
"I just started talking about Mayflower and some of the things we were doing and I think she was a bit surprised that that was possible, the things that I was telling her, in Oklahoma. I think she got curious about it and one thing led to another," he said.
Meyers said for a long time, Mayflower has stood out from among a sea of predominantly conservative churches in the state. As he described the congregation to the filmmakers, they became more curious about it.
"We've been here a long time and we've been doing an unconventional kind of ministry for a very long time and a very unlikely kind of ministry, in that we are unapologetically progressive people but we're also Christians," he said. "We are largely Democrats, but we are also Christians. We are very much into progressive politics and women's rights and gay rights and immigrant rights and yet we live in Oklahoma."
Jeanine Butler said the more they learned about Meyers, Mayflower and some others, the more intrigued they became.
"We had the good fortune of meeting some of our characters on another project and the more we learned about them, the more we realized it provided an extremely interesting conversation that resonated not just in the state but around the country at a time when we are extremely polarized as a country, across lines of religion and politics and race," she said in an interview.
"So the idea of it sprouted earlier on, and as we got to know them and as we got to know what was happening in Oklahoma, we thought now would be a good time to tell this story."
Meyers said the Butlers came to Oklahoma to do interviews and learn more about Mayflower's work in the community. As they began filming, they met more people connected to Mayflower and also the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior pastor of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Tulsa. The filmmakers decided to widen the scope of the film project.
"It ended up being a film about two churches, Mayflower and All Souls," Meyers said.
The directors met Pearson through Lavanhar, who had made waves in 2008 when he invited Pearson and the remnant of his mostly black Pentecostal megachurch flock to join the predominantly white congregation at All Souls. Pearson is currently an affiliate minister at the church.
Well-known in Oklahoma, Pearson was considered the late televangelist Oral Roberts' "son in the ministry" and he led a fast-growing megachurch called Higher Dimensions in Tulsa until he began espousing a theology he called the "Gospel of Inclusion," that questioned the existence of Hell, among other things. His Gospel of Inclusion put him crosswise with Roberts and numerous Christian pastors and theologians who eventually branded him a heretic.
The movie about Pearson and what he described as his "journey into the New Thought community" premiered in 2018. The feature film "Come Sunday" included actors Chiwetel Ejiofor as Pearson and Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts.
Other Oklahomans featured in the film include the Rev. Lori Walke, Meyers' associate pastor at Mayflower Congregational Church; her husband, State Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City; Bernard Brandon Scott, a New Testament scholar and former longtime Phillips Theological Seminary professor; and Nehemiah D. Frank, founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times and teacher at Sankofa School of the Performing Arts in Tulsa. Robert Jones, founding chief executive officer of Public Religion Research Institute, a frequent commentator on culture, religion and politics, is also featured in the film.
Meyers said he thinks the documentary will enlighten people about ministries that differ from the predominant religious culture in Oklahoma.
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"There's commentary all through it about progressive Christianity," he said. "Most people in Oklahoma don't know what it is and I think the net effect of the film — that there is such a thing, it can be practiced in the state and most surprisingly, it can be successful."
"American Heretics" at deadCenter Film Festival
Showings: 2 p.m. Saturday, American Fidelity Theater at Harkins Theatres Bricktown 16, 150 E Reno; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oklahoma City Musuem of Art, 415 Couch Drive.