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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XVIII — In Our Unity of Purpose

I always felt a sense of special blessing when Charles or Myrtle Fillmore led the meetings. Neither one of them was a conventional type speaker. Years later I was to hear Bob Sikking say of his mother, who became one of Unity’s best loved leaders, “She disobeys all the rules!” which was not quite justified, but might indicate a rule of its own. There is, one might say, a love of rules, but there is also a rule of love, and that takes precedence.

Charles Fillmore might begin his talk with a statement we had heard time and again: “We are now in the presence of pure being, and immersed in the Holy Spirit of life, love, and wisdom.” It sometimes seemed to me that he was listening as much as he was speaking, and a new note would come into his voice; his face would light up with a smile. Denying some error of human frailty he would have that characteristic gesture of his hands, as if he were smoothing out a rough or wrinkled surface, peace to troubled waters or troubled souls.

In order to make such affirmations effective in my own experience I sometimes found it helpful to reword them. “Clarification, please,” I said to my subconscious on one such occasion. I waited, and it came back as “I am in the love of God, and the love of God is in me.”

My ministry became modestly more effective, too, when I realized that being a minister was not a matter of showing off how much I thought I knew, or making Truth mysterious (it already is!), but rather to make it help people. Both Charles and Myrtle were masters of this; whether it was innate in them, or acquired, conscious or unconscious, it was there. They seemed to tune in on people’s needs, and the answers.

Myrtle had a way of bringing listeners into the mood of her remarks. Pausing when a word seemed elusive, she would hesitate, raise her chin slightly, and someone would supply the word. She would nod in acknowledgement. It was, I think, her way of holding the interest and relaxing possible tension among her listeners.

Her husband achieved the same result by his sense of humor. Like most experienced speakers, he could sense the interest, or lack of it, in the congregation. He knew just when to interject a humorous remark or an anecdote into his discourse, and never seemed to lack for one.

In the informal midweek evening service, where they sat side by side on a platform lower and closer to their audience than on Sundays, his bubbly informal manner came to the fore. It was like a visit with him. (People who were invited to his home, or privileged to have him as a guest in their own, found him to be a delightful companion, easy to talk with, a good listener, and as much at home with children as adults, and they with him.)

One Wednesday evening he got started on a story about a man who asserted that he had been a farmer all his life. Perturbed at what the next lines might be, Myrtle reached toward him and surreptitiously tugged at his coat tail. He turned toward her, chuckling: “There now; I know what I’m doing,” he assured her, while Myrtle unfurled the folded fan she carried, and fanned vigorously.

The story went like this:

“A farmer all your life, eh? What did you do your first two years?”
“Watered and manured,” was the answer, to the amused delight of the affectionate assembly.

Humor, a Saving Grace

This was not an isolated incident although the most candid of any that Lowell or I could remember. I surmise that Mr. Fillmore took a kind of mischievous delight in asserting his freedom to be himself, and to break down any false barriers of prudery or ostentation that might exist among his listeners. He didn’t want to be put on a pedestal, or looked to as a saint.

Lowell had a wry comment to share with me about his father’s somewhat unpredictable sense of humor; “Sometimes Father will start telling a story he’s used before, and it will take a different turn from the last time. Rick and I will wonder how he’s going to manage the tag line—but he always does!”

All the Fillmores had a great sense of humor. Grandma Fillmore’s was provincial like her son’s, Lowell’s was mildly bucolic but always kindly. He loved puns, and the more far-fetched the better he seemed to relish them, like, “What is the soup for today?” he might ask a waitress at the cafeteria. “It’s bean soup,” she might answer.

“I don’t care what it’s been,” he’d reply with delight, “What is it now?” Or, chiding himself for such banter, he might remark that “people who pun, should be punished and put in the pun-itentiary.” He had a facile memory for bucolic verse, and would declaim one when the occasion offered or could be contrived. He was a shy man often called upon to fill a role as executive and public speaker which he often found difficult. A quip, a pun, a rhyme seemed to give him a kind of freedom. He excelled in impersonations; the role of Santa Claus, a country bumpkin, or an ethnic dialect portrayal, always without malice.

Rick’s humor was more sophisticated, as when he discovered that I had joined the Masonic Order and wore a miniscule pin in my coat lapel.

“I see you believe in advertising,” was his comment. If you not only saw the point of his humor but felt it as well, he really expected and welcomed a response. I was prepared with one because Richard Lynch had made the same comment. I countered Rick’s with the rejoinder, “And I see that it pays.”

On another occasion when, on behalf of the workers, I was attempting to present a birthday cake to his father with what I hoped were appropriate remarks, Rick interrupted me from the sidelines with the comment, “What Ernest is trying to say is that Dad takes the cake!”

An Innovator

Rick possessed great creative ability. The Unity Village concept and most of its complex of administrative and recreational facilities are his brain children. His limitation, if it was one, was that once he had given birth to an idea he lost interest in it and went on to some other one—which meant that at the time of his demise there were a good many unfinished projects, many that have now been completed.

He was an innovator and experimented successfully with prefabricated buildings at Unity Village long before they were allowed under the building codes of most cities. He was one of the first to utilize television in religious promotion, and the message of Unity became familiar to viewers nationwide by the televised programs in which his daughter Rosemary presented Unity Daily Word. She and her husband, Ralph Rhea, are now the producers of the sustaining television program, The Word. Rick’s son, Charles Rickert, carries on the family tradition as president of Unity School.

Rick was the most articulate member of the founding family, establishing a liaison with the community, active in civic affairs, serving terms as president of the Kansas City Rotary Club, both locally and nationally. Within the Unity movement he was the most reclusive, hidden away in his studio adjoining the editorial department, a private world to which none of the staff was ever admitted to my knowledge until he relinquished it for a similar retreat in the Tower of Unity Village. Infrequently he would emerge for special occasions such as an appearance before delegates to the annual conference of Unity leaders. Once he startled that assembly by announcing that he expected to spend sixty million dollars on developing the Village.

A Time of Expansion

Even in 1927, when I joined the staff on Tracy, the conference was outgrowing the chapel where its meetings were held. Ralph Boileau had become director of the Field Department and proposed an idea that met with mixed response—to have a Chautauqua type conference, utilizing a nearby excavated basement lot for most of the meetings. The floor was at least twelve feet below street level and was to be reached by installing a stairway of fresh lumber; the ground covered by sawdust; a speaker’s platform built; benches installed, and the whole setup covered by a circus tent! It was a novelty that took no account of people’s comfort, but most of the hundreds who attended accepted it cheerfully, as is the Unity way. Imelda Shanklin was to be a featured speaker. Notably self-disciplined, and usually imperturbable, she was unprepared for this circus atmosphere. Her black eyes flashed with indignation as she mounted the steps to the speaker’s platform. She opened her mouth to speak. Not a word could she utter. Someone else had to replace her.

Rick came up with a still more innovative idea for the next conference. Let it be held at Unity Farm.

Tent City

James Dillet Freeman describes the undertaking in his book The Story of Unity:

“In the summer of 1928, a great meeting of Unity leaders was held at Unity Farm to bless the buildings and to make plans for the future. A tent city was erected. There hundreds of Unity leaders, not only from the United States but from foreign countries, lived for eight jubilant days through rain and fair weather.

“It turned out to be mostly rain, and of creature comforts there were few. When it rained hard the water streamed through the tents between the cots; the only available shower baths were in the unfinished Silent Unity Building; the only place to eat was in the chapel in this building, which had been converted into a cafeteria serving fifteen hundred meals each day. But everyone sloshed through the rain to the meetings with sunshiny spirits that the weather would not dampen. There was no criticism, no complaint. There was little comfort, but lots of consecration.” (The Household of Faith 133)

The Farm seemed a very far-out yet very imaginative concept to me: to go 20 miles out in the country; begin with some 1200 acres of farm land; drill for gas, oil and water; and evolve these into orchards, vineyards, a poultry farm, a dairy, dwellings, office buildings, a cafeteria, golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts and a water tower! A spiritually oriented community in a world that was obsessed by wars and rumors of war! It gave promise of becoming a self-sustaining community.

I could have become completely enthralled by such a concept but for the fact that I had hardly become familiar with the details involved in editing Youth before I was called on to attend committee meetings, speak at the daily ten o’clock workers’ meetings and—what was new and awesome to me—speak on Unity’s radio station, WOQ, which shared time with The Star’s Station, WDAF.

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