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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XVI — Cleveland

So I left Grace Wilson in charge of the growing Minneapolis ministry, to start all over again in Cleveland. Was this to be the pattern of my life? Was I destined always to be leaving a growing work, leaving old friends and what seemed to be great potentials for something strange and untried? No, that was the wrong attitude, I told myself. I was to go forward, moving with changing events, but secure in the realization that “God is my help in every need, and in the need of the moment.” I must concentrate on the present, facing forward to new opportunities. Good would follow good, miracle follow miracle, and wonders never cease.

Someone who had lived in Cleveland told me of the Wilton Hotel so I took a taxi from the impressive Union Station opposite the towering Hotel Cleveland, out Euclid Avenue to the Wilton where I left my luggage, freshened up a bit, and found that Lady Ann’s “Unity Healing Center,” in the Carnegie Hall building was within walking distance, opposite Halle’s Department Store. Carnegie Hall, I found, was mostly occupied by artists and musicians. I took an elevator to the fourth floor and found Ann esconced in a spacious room that looked more like a sitting room, with a wicker-framed davenport, comfortable cushioned arm chairs, a kidney-shaped desk, posture chair and typewriter stand.

Ann greeted me with a warm embrace and offered me coffee and some light refreshments. While the coffee was brewing she took me to see an adjoining small lecture hall that would seat some fifty or sixty people in folding chairs. There was a podium and reading desk, a print of Hoffman’s “Jesus at Thirty” on the facing wall.

Over refreshments we talked about practical matters. I was to speak on alternate Sunday mornings, share the platform for a midweek evening prayer service, and receive one-half of offerings in which I took part. This was standard procedure in those early days. I thought of Colville and his eccentric expression, “parting the hair in the middle.”

Tea and Sympathy

There would be counselling, too, which was Ann’s major interest:

“I counsel with several people every day, and this should be a major source of income,” she remarked. “Yet very few of the suppliants leave an offering.”

“Could it be,” I ventured, “that you treat them very much as you have me? That coming here is very much like a guest in a sitting room. You wouldn’t think of making an offering to your hostess.”

“I never thought of that. You’re right. I’ve been thinking of myself as a hostess instead of a professional consultant. I must change my attitude, and perhaps also limit consultations to thirty minutes.” There was no second counselling room. If both of us had appointments at the same time, one of us—usually me—talked with patients in a corner of the lecture hall.

My income for the first week, Monday through Saturday, was four dollars, just what I paid for a day’s lodging.

On one such occasion I was listening to someone’s problem from the corner of the lecture room, when I heard through the open door of the study a man’s voice mouthing accusations at Lady Ann. She had led him to believe he could depend on her for support and she was letting him down. I excused myself and rushed to her side. He turned on me then, still addressing her, “Oh, so you’re supporting him now,” pointing at me, and left for the elevator. I found then that indigent men had found the Unity Healing Center to be a handy place for a handout. Ann, in her motherly need to be helpful would give them a preachment on “holding the right thought,” and it would end in her giving them some money.

Many men were out of work in 1925-26. Some no doubt were trying urgently to get jobs, but there were many who found that panhandling was an easy form of self-employment. They were not above appealing to a woman much older than themselves for whatever they could get.

The manager of the building had even complained to Ann about the number of “tramps” that were using the facilities and making their way to her study. Ann realized that it was getting out of hand, but asserted that she couldn’t bear to turn them away.

“You don’t have to, but maybe we can find a better way to handle the matter.”

It wasn’t difficult. I found that for a charitable contribution I could get meal tickets to give to indigent men. If they were honest they would take the tickets gratefully; if not, they would turn them down, often with a sneer. There were few acceptances, and soon no such callers.

Sandwich, Song, Sermonette

Sunday morning attendance filled the hall even though many of those who attended were members of established churches, most of them attracted by having seen an announcement in Weekly Unity. Midweek evening services were smaller.

I was rapidly using up what reserve funds I had brought with me to Cleveland. With Ann, income was secondary for she, like most of the women leaders in Unity, had other channels of supply—husbands or securities left by deceased husbands. The work did not support even one leader, let alone two.

We found an answer by instituting a Sunday evening gathering. Finger sandwiches and tea or coffee were served at six-thirty followed by congregational singing and an informal eight o’clock devotional service. It proved to be a great success. People brought their families and friends.

It Wasn’t M.A.M.

Church people began inviting me to speak at adult Bible classes in their churches. I was called on to conduct funeral services. One of them came on a day when it was necessary to have some dental work done. I had accepted an afternoon service following the morning on which I had to have a molar tooth extracted: it proved to be a difficult operation. By this time I had found an inexpensive apartment, replacing the hotel room, and I went groggily there to get into pajamas and try to pull myself together. I completely forgot the funeral assignment until there was a rap on the door. It was the driver of the car who was to convey me to the funeral chapel. He helped me get into the formal garb that in those days I felt proper for such occasions. He helped me down to the car and I flopped down on the back seat, still with a sense of nausea. I managed to get through the chapel service, hoping my clutch on the lectern was not too obvious, and had to go in the car again to the cemetery. I could barely stand during the brief committal. I hadn’t known that the deceased had been a convert from Christian Science, and that some of the family resented my officiating, until a mourner came up to me as I concluded the ritual. Putting a supporting hand under my arm he muttered:

“Don’t let ’em get you. It’s malicious animal magnetism, that’s what it is.”

It seemed useless to try, in my weakened condition to explain that it was a sharp reaction to a “serpent tooth.”

Another kind of serpent’s tooth confronted me. It was the “kind friend” of Lady Ann’s who made her feel that she was not appreciated, that I was trying to take her place. I am confident that in her inmost heart Lady Ann did not feel that way. She had wanted me in Unity. She had so much wanted me to become a Unity minister that she had impulsively made a place for me to get started. Neither she nor I had realized how much this would change the emphasis of the Cleveland ministry.

She herself took the initiative in making the adjustment.

“Some of the women who were attracted to my way of conducting a counselling center think you are trying to take over and leave me out. I know better, but it makes me realize that I had not wanted to establish a large ministry, with study classes, Sunday School, and devotional services. I envisioned a homelike atmosphere in a beautiful sitting room, comforting and counselling with people in trouble. I should have realized this when you recommended putting this ministry on a more professional basis. The work here is growing beyond me.

“I don’t want to be a Unity minister, with all the responsibilities that entails. On the other hand, I know that Cleveland should have a flourishing Unity ministry, presenting all the practical aspects of Unity teaching. So I think the time has come for me to do what I contemplated doing when I asked you to join me here. I am more comfortable in the quiet type of ministry centered in counselling. Fortunately I have a modest income, sufficient for my personal needs. I can go to Houston as I said, and offer that kind of ministry.”

She had made such a decree, bless her, when she invited me to come to Cleveland, and now, as Job’s comforter said, it was established unto her.

We Didn ’t Ask You!

There is a curious corollary to this episode. Years later I was destined to speak in a Unity center in Houston. A bright little lady named Lillian Black Brass, whose youthful enthusiasm belied her years, was in charge. She told me that I had been her first teacher, in the Cleveland center, although I had not known it. Lady Ann had started a counselling center, but left to rejoin relatives back east. After one or two replacements of short duration, Unity had sent her to Houston as a replacement.

She had met with a surprise rebuff from the woman in charge of the reception room:

“We did not ask for you to be sent here. We do not want you for a leader.”

Mrs. Brass tells me she answered, “Well, dear, you love this Unity work, don’t you?”

“Yes, indeed I do!” was the response.

“I always find, where there is an impasse,” Mrs. Brass confided to me, “if you can ask a question that invites an affirmative response it helps. So I said to her,

“Well, so do I! So why can’t we work together for the common cause?”

The woman burst into tears, apologized for her rebuff, and they became friends.

Mrs. Brass, as this would indicate, had a special gift of getting to essentials. She conducted services in the Rice Hotel until her retirement, and her forthright manner, I was delighted to see, attracted an unusual number of men to the congregation.

—in the Quiet Way of Prayer

The growth of the Sunday morning services changed the emphasis of our presentation to an overall philosophy of living rather than, but including, a remedial ministry. Yet it was an occurrence in the midweek prayer service that increased attendance at both.

A mother and small daughter had been regular attendants Wednesday evenings. They came and went quietly, hand in hand, with just a word of greeting, until one special evening, when, in the middle of an audible prayer I was leading, I heard a little girl’s voice cry out,

“Mother! I can see Mr. Wilson now!”

This was the first we knew that the child had been blind since infancy. Heads turned, people exclaimed, some of them wept.

Over their murmur I invited all to join me in a prayer of thanks to God for this manifestation of healing.

Throw A way Your Crutches!

Great is the power of the word. News of the healing spread—even, apparently to the city’s leading newspaper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, for the next week a reporter and sketch artist attended the meeting, following which a three-column illustrated article appeared, under the heading: “REPORTER FINDS HEALING CENTER PORT OF SMILES” with the sub-heading, “Rev. Ernest Wilson of Unity Center Preaches Gospel of Joy, Peace.”

Among others, the story attracted the attention of an erstwhile San Diego friend, Frannie Haines, a young registered nurse who had had a spiritual healing of gastric ulcers. I found she was stationed at a Cleveland hospital. On her days off we would go horseback riding together, a recreation that carried over to my later days in Kansas City. One day Frannie said, “I have a book you must read. It is called Child of the Dawn.” Somewhat reluctantly I accepted a copy and chucked it in a handbag I would be taking with me on a two-hour trip to Warren, Ohio, where I was helping to revive a Unity study group. It presented in story form a concept of The Hereafter that so appealed to me that I have reviewed its story for many study groups. I regret that it is out of print.

A number of high school and college teachers were attracted to our center; one of them, Martha Olivenbaum taught Lessons In Truth. I got her to coach me in Greek and Latin, and we often attended plays and concerts together. Another teacher was a member of the Philharmonic orchestra, and frequently played French horn solos for our Sunday services. I seemed surrounded by highly skilled, talented people; indeed, Carnegie Hall was mostly filled with music teachers, not all of them Unity oriented. One of them who was trying to be, was an impecunious piano teacher. She had the bad habit of frequently injuring or breaking a leg. She would often appear on crutches near the end of the month when studio rent was due. One day she came for consultation, requesting prayers for prosperity; and finally, “How can I overcome this tendency to sprains and breaks?” she demanded.

“Throw away your crutches,” I suggested.

“Oh, I couldn’t do that. I may be needing them again!” she exclaimed.

It was about this time that President Coolidge’s son died of blood poisoning. A telegram from Aunt Dode arrived, to tell me that Herman Berg had succumbed to the same experience on the same day in Minneapolis. Could I come for the memorial service? It was perhaps the most difficult such service I had had up to that time. He was like a younger brother to me, and I felt very close to his sisters and mother.

God Lives Yet

By the end of the service I was shaken and tears were blurring my sight. As Mother Berg came forward for a last view of her son I could no longer keep back the tears. It was Mother Berg, whom I should have been comforting, who comforted me. Putting an arm around me, she said, “Remember, Ernest, God lives yet.” I’ve thought of that and quoted it in many crises of experience. Though I was chagrined at losing control of my emotions, I think it helped Mother Berg to know that I shared her love and loss.

Cleveland had begun to feel like home to me, and though I have an innate love of travel and change, I also like to feel there is a place called home to which I can return. I found myself making plans for the future, sending to Seattle for credentials entitling me to enroll in Ohio University, buying or building a house, transferring my Masonic affiliations.

Maybe this time I could really stay in one place, as I had thought I might in Galveston, in San Diego, in Minneapolis. This time it might be different.

Longhand Letter from Lowell

I had already declined an invitation to become a copy reader in the editorial department at Unity in Kansas City. Then, some months later came a letter, handwritten by Lowell Fillmore, manager of Unity School, enclosing a round trip ticket to Kansas City and inviting me to become editor of Youth, whose founding editor, Gardner Hunting, was leaving to produce documentary motion pictures in Hollywood. This was an offer very different from the previous one; a proposition I could not refuse.

There went my domestic and cultural plans.

I went to Kansas City and between Sundays, Lowell, Retta and I worked out the details. I would remain in Cleveland until a suitable replacement could be found. It proved to be Viva January, a vivacious and personable woman of perhaps forty years, an impressive speaker who sang well, played an accordian, and composed hymns, one of which, “Let,” is number 263 in Unity Song Selections.

She might well become the Aimee Semple MacPherson, or the Ruth Carter Stapleton—in other words, the lady evangelist—of the Unity Movement, I thought. She had promotional ideas that were in advance of what was acceptable to Unity headquarters at the time, and apparently ahead of many followers. She was the first Unity teacher, to my knowledge, to make a specific charge for class work. She blamed a meager response in Cleveland not to her aggressive demands, but to me. I had occasion to discover this when, perhaps a year after the accession to leadership, I was called to Cleveland to officiate at a wedding ceremony, and took the opportunity to call on Viva.

“How are you enjoying the Cleveland ministry?” I asked. “Nobody can do a Unity work here,” she exclaimed. “All the people talk about is you!”

“If I could evoke such a response in the short time I was here, just think what you, with your beauty, charm, and ability can do! You will surely win their love!”

But she didn’t have the patience, or “want to enough,” and she not only left Cleveland, but the Unity movement as well. I returned to headquarters with the unhappy feeling of guilt—that I had attracted people to myself rather than to the cause I served.

There have been other complaints. Franklyn Kelly was to make a similar observation. “It isn’t that you’re so smart,” he put it, “but you just act as if you need people’s help, and they fall all over themselves to do things for you.”

Quite the opposite is indicated in another instance, where I returned to find that people were giving much greater support to my successor than they had to me. “If you had given such support to my efforts, just think what we could have accomplished,” I commented to one of the teachers who had worked with me.

“You never made us feel you needed our help,” she answered.

Agreement versus Growth

Of all of us who seek to serve a cause, no two of us are identical. We are as like and as unlike as leaves on a tree. Each of us, I think, attracts his own, and no one of us attracts everybody. I could wish that everybody I seek to serve would like and respond to my efforts, but it is impossible, and besides, it would be very bad for the ego. Let anyone who feels unappreciated or misunderstood, recall what the people did to Jesus Christ!

This world is far from perfect as a place in which to have everything and everybody agree with us, but it is well-nigh perfect as a world in which to learn and to grow.

I found a lot of such opportunities at Unity headquarters.

© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.