Late in Come Sunday, megachurch pastor Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) visits Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), his former music director, who’s dying from lymphoma. Reggie is gay, and believes that means he’s going to hell. Carlton has just lost most of his congregation because he no longer believes in hell, but he still considers Reggie’s homosexuality sinful. Reggie asks for a blessing before he dies. Carlton doesn’t feel he can give it to him, but knows how important it is to Reggie. Unsure of how to proceed, both men lean in and tearfully sing “Jesus Loves Me” together.
It’s a raw moment that communicates not just the two men’s doubt and care for each other, but also the sense of confusion, conflict, and compassion that color everyone’s faith journey. Come Sunday, which tells Pearson’s real-life story, often feels more invested in hitting story beats than in developing its characters. But it hits the nature of evolving belief right on the head.
Come Sunday is based on This American Life’s 2005 episode on Pearson, and was produced by TAL host and executive producer Ira Glass (read Juliet Vedral’s interview with Glass). At the start of the film, Pearson is an influential charismatic pastor in Tulsa, close friends with Oral Roberts (played here by Martin Sheen) and head of a booming, multiracial congregation. Then one night, he experiences a spiritual revelation in which he believes God tells him there is no hell. Come Sunday details what happens after Pearson reveals his new stance on salvation to his reluctant congregation.
While Pearson believes that God has saved everyone, the faith he’s followed for so long still carries strong stances on issues like homosexuality, reproductive rights, and engagement with secular culture. Ejiofor gives a strong performance as a man who is sure in his new belief, but still figuring out how his changing faith relates to the other parts of his life. The pastor also has to learn humility along the way, gaining a new understanding of what church is all about, and what a successful church community looks like.
What Come Sunday doesn’t explore, disappointingly, is how Pearson’s new beliefs impact the people closest to him in his congregation. We see the eventual fallout — the departure of his staff to start a new church, his dwindling congregation, Pearson’s conflicts with the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops. But it’s nothing you wouldn’t also get if you listened to Pearson’s This American Life episode. Jason Segel barely registers as Pearson’s long-time assistant who feels betrayed when Pearson announces his change of faith to the church with no warning. The same is true for Pearson’s wife, Gina (Condola Rashād). Part of this is by design — Pearson’s ego makes him assume his family and followers will be with him no matter what he does. But mostly it feels like a missed opportunity to tell a more complex story.
Yet the complexities of faith that Come Sunday does manage to communicate are full of truth, presenting a portrait of rock-solid faith in the midst of profound change, and raising questions with which we all live. How do we show love to people we care about, but whose beliefs or lifestyle go against what we’ve been taught as acceptable? How do we minister to a friend when that friend’s needs and what we’re willing to provide don’t match up? How do we share new spiritual experiences with others, when what we’ve discovered might not be taken well, or be rejected? Come Sunday lives in these questions, asking us to ponder them along with its protagonist and empathize with his journey.
Sometimes, the film tells us, there are no good answers. All we can do is sit with our thoughts and do our best to love each other well.