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Aug 19, 2013 | Carol E. Barnwell

“Punk Rock Just Totally Saved My Life”


[Diolog Magazine] The Rev. Bertie Pearson has taken a circuitous route back home to Austin where he serves as vicar for San Francisco de Asis. Along the road, his music and his faith fueled the miles between college in Berkeley and Paris, working as a DJ and playing in several bands from the West Coast to the East. Music royalties also helped support him through seminary. 


Pearson grew up in Austin and can’t remember when music was not a central part of his life. His father was a professional musician, and even as a small child, Pearson remembers beating on his tricycle seat with sticks. His grandmother gave him a keyboard when he was in the fourth grade, and his first drum set came from Doc Holliday’s Pawn Shop in South Austin. He bought it with $100 he earned painting his uncle’s oil tanks over the summer when he was 12. “That tar-like black oil paint just coated your skin,” he said. “It was impossible to get off … had to be in violation of every conceivable child labor law—straight out of Dickens,” he laughed. 



Pearson’s father played with the Flatlanders, one of country music’s first alternative bands in early ‘70s. He later earned a graduate degree in classics. Pearson’s mother was a textile artist who parlayed a secretarial job into an opportunity to learn computer animation, composing the first iteration of the popular children’s video series, Veggie Tales. She did icons for the local television weather broadcast and was soon animating talking M&M’s. Today she works for DreamWorks and is currently in production on How to Train Your Dragon 2


While Pearson’s parents weren’t active participants in church, they did send their son to parochial schools, so chapel was always a part of daily life. “My mom was kind of Episcopalian, kind of Buddhist; and my dad is culturally and completely rooted in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer—loves it passionately and also is a complete atheist,” Pearson said. When he was seven, he told his father he wanted to be a priest. “That’s a great job if you believe that there’s a man who lives in the sky and controls everything,” the elder Pearson said. 


Pearson describes himself as a “total outcast” growing up. As an only child he spent a lot of time with adults. “I was the classic nerd,” he said, recalling how appalled he was in junior high to learn that his peers sometimes paid $75 for a pair of jeans. That’s when he first heard a band called the Dead Kennedys. 


“Suddenly here were these songs expressing exactly the way I felt about the world—that we should all be kind to each other—that all this consumerism is ridiculous … in this really fast, aggressive music,” he explained. He listened to Minor Threat, a D.C.-based band in the early 80s that advocated a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle, and Black Flag, one of the first hard-core punk bands. 


“Punk rock just totally saved my life,” Pearson mused. With this new sound came new friends in that music scene who shared his ideals. The green hair and safety pins some sported were just ways of saying “we don’t want to belong,” he explained. But as this music became more mainstream, Pearson was surprised to find the school “jocks” has changed their tune. 


“Suddenly all these guys at Austin High who used to threaten to beat us up were saying, ‘Oh, you guys are cool!’ and we thought, ‘Oh, no! Our whole plot has failed!’” 


Pearson’s group of friends started dressing Mod, like the early Beatles, and throwing dance parties. For his first DJ gig Pearson rented a mixer for $12 and used a couple of home turntables. He continued to DJ when he moved to the Bay Area for college, later playing venues in Barcelona and Paris. He played in several different bands and even had a record contract with a major label for a short time. 


Despite the lack of enthusiasm from his parents in the religion department, integrating faith and music in his life was never a struggle for Pearson. His call to the priesthood remained strong, but Pearson decided to try other career options before pursuing ordination “to make sure,” he said. He played music, tried writing for a magazine, and worked in a homeless shelter, but still felt, in each case, something was missing. 


“After diving in with both feet into all these different things that I might want to do with my life, I realized that I have an emotional and spiritual call to the priesthood,” Pearson said. “It is the one thing that engages every part of myself—the one vocation in which I could really be myself totally, all the time.” 


At UC Berkeley in the late 90s, Pearson said it was his Christianity that raised eyebrows among fellow musicians and students. “You could dabble in Buddhism, but even that was seen as a little cheesy. Any kind of religion was incredibly suspect, so for years I just didn’t really talk about it … but I never missed mass.” Even when his band was on tour, he’d go to services. 


“I haven’t missed a Sunday in 12 years,” he said. 


Reaction to Pearson’s church attendance from people in the music scene was sometimes hostile, but more and more frequently it was met with interest and curiosity. The more positive feedback he got, the more confident about sharing his faith he became. He was also happy to discover the Anglo-Catholic tradition while in college in San Francisco, which suited his aesthetic more closely than his previous low-church experience. “That was really fulfilling,” he said, “kind of like stepping outside of time and having an hour sitting before God and all God’s majesty.”


Pearson met his wife, Rahel, a Dutch-born fashion model, backstage during a fashion show where his band was playing in 2006. They discovered a shared faith in God and a love of Kierkegaard and were married in 2009, two years after Pearson graduated from seminary at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. 


“Rahel wasn’t caught up in all that stuff,” Pearson said of the runway shows in Paris and Milan and her multiple magazine covers. He said they both believe that humility is an essential component of their faith—“Humility in the sense that I have a soul which stands before God equal to every other soul before God.” Rahel is currently finishing a doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Texas. 


The Bishop of California, Bill Andrus, asked Pearson to find a way to involve young people in the church following his ordination. “I knew how to promote a nightclub, so I decided to create an arts event that centered on the holy and the Church,” Pearson said. With friends who were gallery curators, he developed EpiscopDisco which featured an art installation and music, lots of music. “We wanted people to come on their terms and experience the sacred on their terms … Time after time, there were these incredible experiences.” The event continued to grow and was “this seamless comingling of hip San Francisco art world and the Episcopal Church.”


Music has always been a part of Pearson’s life. So has God. There was no “conversion” experience for him. “It’s like gravity,” he said, “always there… God is the source of stability and strength and joy and peace and meaning that everything comes from for me,” he said. “I see God’s nature with perfect clarity in Jesus and it’s the Spirit, which I think inspires my music and my prayer and which inspires acts of compassion …” 


With Pearson’s knack for celebrating the fullness of life on the edge, he does seem at home amidst the mostly-immigrant community of San Francisco de Asis. “San Francisco is made up of some of the most kindhearted, selfless Christians I’ve ever had the honor of serving,” he said, adding, “Most of them exhibit this fever pitch of devotion and kindness under phenomenally difficult economic circumstances.” The congregation just launched a new worship service in English and Pearson has hopes to share the treasure of the Episcopal Church with all of his neighbors in the South Austin area.