CHAPTER XV — The Founders Preside
It was a Sunday morning, a few minutes past ten o’clock. Maybe I could get to the chapel on Tracy Avenue in time for the service. Every taxi driver knew the Unity address, and mine nodded before I completed the number. He let me out before the pillared entrance of the School’s administration building, which was reminiscent of a Grecian temple, and I walked the short distance to the less pretentious three-story stone and brick structure that housed Unity Society, where devotional services were held, intimated by the black and gold glass sign mounted on the wall at one side of the entrance.
The erection of Unity Society’s building back in 1910 marked a great achievement in Unity. The few Unity Centers scattered across the nation all met in rented quarters at best, many of them simply met in the modest livingroom of some housewife who wanted her family to know about Unity’s concept of Christianity, and invited neighborhood women to join her in reading Lessons In Truth, or excerpts from Unity periodicals or tracts. The one exception, I was to discover later, was a one-room building in St. Petersburg, Florida, built by a Unity convert, a Doctor Young. I was destined to speak there—to some twenty-five or thirty students, on my first tour of the state as a speaker from headquarters.
Unity Society was incorporated in 1903, and celebrated by buying the lot with a frame house on it. The father of May Rowland, Mr. Hoagland, a member of the Society’s board, mortgaged his home to enable the Society to buy the property. It took seven years to accumulate sufficient funds to move the old house to the corner of Tenth and Tracy, where it served as a cafeteria for Unity workers, and to erect the three-story structure at 913 Tracy that I entered on that Sunday morning.
Entering, I faced a long corridor with offices on either hand, and open doors revealing the chapel’s seats and distant speaker’s platform its rear wall adorned by the word “LOVE” in large letters. To my right was a bookroom. A pleasant lady with pinkish hair welcomed me, and permitted me to leave my bag in a corner.
I glanced at my pocket watch. It had been a short ride. I was in ample time, although the chapel was already nearly filled and the last-minute people were coming in as the organist was playing the prelude. I found a back row seat, and closed my eyes for a moment of silent prayer.
It was a simple service, characteristic of many I was to attend somewhat later. Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, founders of the Unity movement, and their eldest son, Lowell, were the principal participants assisted by the soloist and organist. The preliminaries, the recital of The Lord’s Prayer, Scriptural reading that foretold the theme of the morning lesson, announcements and offering, were led haltingly by Lowell Fillmore. The main feature of the service was the participation of the founders.
Mrs. Fillmore led a meditation in a high treble voice, almost musical in its intonations. I was impressed by her motherly appearance, the crown of snow-white hair, the beauty of her features, marked by the etched lines of, I felt, her concern for others. But what I had come most to hear was the discourse, a metaphysical Bible interpretation by Charles Fillmore; all else was background.
As he came to the lectern I could see that though he was obviously crippled and in his late seventies, his face was almost unlined, framed in sparse white hair. A pink and white complexion suffused a cherubic countenance which even in repose had a slightly smiling appearance. His person so dominated his body that his lameness was very soon forgotten.
He spoke quietly, in an even tone of voice with few ups and downs. He seemed to depend more on small gestures, pauses, and facial expression for emphasis. Linking his Scriptural text to a current need, he offered an affirmative aid to meeting it, at the same time spreading his hands, palms down, horizontally at waist level, as though he were smoothing a bed of sand or a rumpled fabric, figuratively erasing the problem he had commented upon.
It was very warm in the chapel that sultry summer Sunday. Air conditioning was still years away. The tone of voice, the tenor of the message, were quiet, punctuated by the hum of a fly or the sibilant breathing of some who took the opportunity for a catnap. Lulled into a state of reverie, I had lost track of his theme until a new emphasis in his voice recalled me to my surroundings. I heard him saying:
“Algy met a bear.
The bear was bulgy.
The bulge was Algy.”
How this applied to what preceded or was to follow in his remarks, I never found out, but I didn’t doze through the offering and benediction that closed the service.
My first participation in a Unity service with Mr. Fillmore took place the next day, a red-letter day for me. I had been impressed by the high standard of Unity publications from the time a copy of Unity magazine was given to me by Nannie Highnote in Galveston. The editorial style was conservative, not given to superlatives; grammatical and typographical errors were rare; the Cheltenham type face so appealing to me that I specified it in my first small book, The Simple Truth. I had only wished the editors told more about people at headquarters whose writing appeared in print. I would turn to the back pages of Unity Monthly, scanning items about forthcoming issues for some indication of the appearance and personality of contributors.
There must be something very special about the people who were leaders in what I considered to be the foremost metaphysical movement in America, perhaps in the whole world.
There was. Particularly in the case of Charles Fillmore who could maintain undisputed leadership in a movement that emphasized healing through prayer, though he himself was in such a need. The principle is constant, though the practice may vary, he seemed to be saying. To this I evolved a corollary thought. “You cannot estimate where a person is in consciousness, unless you know how far he has come and what way he is going.” I was to learn and appreciate how great an overcomer Charles was!
Unity really started with Myrtle Fillmore. It was what The Kansas City Star described as “The Miracle Healing of a Woman’s Faith” that initiated the movement. Her healing converted Charles, and he named the resultant approach to Christianity, “Unity.”
I was to be introduced to one striking aspect of his nature sooner than I could have anticipated.
Time came for the first afternoon session of the training school. Charles and Myrtle presided. Georgianna Tree West, at that time leader of the Louisville, Kentucky ministry, preceded me on the program. She talked—at considerable length it seemed to me, in my impatience to get my initiation over with—on “Spiritual Healing.” Much later I was to learn that, like Charles, Myrtle and many others, she herself “knew whereof she spoke.”
My talk was probably unimpressive. To speak in the presence of these revered leaders was difficult for me. Only the fact that I had gone over my talk several times in thought kept me going. Somewhere in the midst of it I had occasion to remark that in my Cleveland ministry we did not pass the basket for offerings, but had a Plenty Plate near the door where people could place their offerings as they entered or left. Maybe Charles sensed my diffidence and wanted to help me relax, for his voice came out strong from behind me, with the assertion, “Well, we pass the basket here at every meeting, and we get it full every time!” It virtually paralyzed me. Following the murmur of laughter from the congregation I attempted to resume my talk. But my train of thought was derailed. My mind had gone blank. It seemed to me like minutes that I stood there, mute, before I could resume speaking. I was chagrined at such a lapse of memory. “They’ll never ask me back again,” I thought.
I confessed my mortification to Lowell Fillmore when he came up to greet me at the close of the meeting. He attempted to reassure me. “The talks will have been recorded on dictaphone cylinders in our radio studio. I’ll show you the way there. You can have a replay and see how it came through.”
I did so. The pause was so brief that it could have been intended, rather than a lapse of memory.
That talk on prosperity must have met with approval, because word reached me from Ralph Boileau, head of the Field Department, that they wanted me to consider becoming an accredited Unity teacher. He invited me to prolong my stay, meet with Lowell, his assistant, Retta Chilcott, and himself to talk over the possibility.
I was surprised to find that Ann Fairfield had sold her house in LaJolla, and had become established as leader of a Unity group in Cleveland. She had come to headquarters for a refresher course. She was delighted that I might become a Unity leader.
I had my doubts about whether whatever assets I had would outweigh what Unity officials would consider my liabilities.
Assets and/or Liabilities
Ann had warned me that prospective teachers were often rigorously questioned about disapproved teachings. I was certainly vulnerable.
I had come out of the traditional orthodoxy by way of a mixture of occult experiences, Spiritualism, Theosophy, Hermeticism, even a smattering of Astrology.
I had lectured on Numerology, Color Psychology, Cosmic Symbolism, and had written a widely-read book dealing with these subjects.
But now, instead of seeking acceptance as I had done some seven years before, they were seeking me. Besides, Charles Fillmore had come by a similar path, as early copies of the magazine clearly revealed.
Actually the meeting with the three was a pleasant one.
The one thing that bothered them was that I had spent a summer at Denishawn. Had I intended to become a professional dancer? When I explained that I had been there as a writer and consultant, that I had taken the physical exercises of the so-called floor work of the students at Mr. Shawn’s recommendation as a way of building up my bodily energies, they were reassured.
It remained for Retta to broach the subject that may have been their real concern:
“Is it true that sexual deviation is common among dancers?”
My answer was, no, not so far as I knew; that most of the young students had spent a lot of money to be there, were so wholly involved in making their bodies responsive to the rigorous training that I shouldn’t think they’d have much energy for amatory adventures of any kind; that they seemed almost like members of a religious cult. (I didn’t think I needed to tell them about Kenneth, and as he turned out I’m glad I didn’t.)
“I am sure you will be a great addition to our movement. Your writings have already indicated that. But for you to make this change in Minneapolis would be confusing to students. Would you be willing to start as a Unity leader in some other city?”
I thought of the faithful following in Minneapolis. I thought of John whom I’d left in San Diego. Would I always be starting things and then moving on? I told them my feelings. They received a sympathetic response.
“Naturally I have mixed feelings about this, humanly. Yet it seems like part of a plan which Myrtle Fillmore intuitively recognized seven years ago. I believe it’s a guidance higher than my personal will. I feel honored that you want me to represent Unity. Yes I will go wherever Spirit leads.”
“Where would you like to go? It may be a leading,” Lowell asked.
I’d like to start a work in San Francisco,” I was impelled to say.
“I agree, It’s a fascinating city,” Ralph commented. “But we already have a center there. It would also be easier for you to go where an established work is seeking a leader. It will require some prayer.”
“Very well. If it is in divine order a channel will open. Meanwhile I must return to Minneapolis, acquaint everyone concerned with these new developments.” Already I could see Grace Wilson as an acceptable replacement in the Minneapolis work. From San Diego came John’s plea not to leave him; yet I think both he and I knew that it was the end of a cycle; that the bonds established between us endured, but the close association had come to a close.
Followed then days of waiting. Mother Berg commented, “If they want you, why don’t they make a place for you, and a special one at that.”
Ann Fairfield brought the matter to a climax. She was surprised like Mother Berg, that having invited me into Unity, there seemed to be no place for me. “Why don’t you come and help me in Cleveland, until something better appears; or if you want to stay in Cleveland, I’ll withdraw to visit relatives in Houston and start a study class there.”
You Asked For It
I questioned the advisability of entering into such a relationship with a much older woman who was inclined to be possessive in her friendship, but nothing else appeared on the horizon, the feeling that “what must be done, should be done quickly,” led me to accept the offer. “You asked for guidance, and this is the result, so accept it,” said Aunt Dode. The Board agreed. So did I.
We must have a farewell party and reception they decreed. Mother Berg opened her spacious and always hospitable home for the occasion. There were speeches by Okkie Welander, Grace Wilson and others. It was an emotional occasion.
Finally all the guests were gone. Aunt Dode, the girls and Herman gathered around me in a sort of conspirational manner. The responses to my comments on the varying attitudes of the departed guests seemed vague, as if their thoughts were not on what I was saying.
The atmosphere changed when Mother Berg came back from the farewells at the door.
All eyes were on her as she said, “It’s been an emotional evening, and tears are too close to the surface to prolong what I want to say, so I’ll come right to the point.
“We’re all going to miss you, Ernest, not only as our minister, but you’re like a member of the family. We tried to think of something that would remind you of the bond we feel. So all of us have contributed to a token gift that will be a daily reminder of our feelings.”
With that she brought forth from the folds of a scarf she wore, a small jeweler’s box, which she handed me.
The box was lined with white velvet, cradling one of the most beautiful pocket watches I have ever seen; a green-gold watch with pale gold dial and clear black numerals.
“How lovely,” I exclaimed. “I’ve never possessed so beautiful a gift before,” and elaborated on its details. “But you’ve given me a yet greater gift—the love that inspired the giving.”
“And this is to come with it,” said Aunt Dode, presenting another gift, a matching green-gold watch chain.
We all embraced, with smiles and tears.
I still have these treasured mementos, and though I now wear an equally treasured wrist watch presented by the Founders Church, vests are being worn again, and I may be wearing that special pocket watch again.
© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.