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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XIX — An Acted-Out Prayer

As my first winter in Kansas City grew near I thought about the candlelighting service which had become a feature of the Christmas season in congregations I had served. It had evolved from the San Diego ministry when John Ring asked what we could do to help new members grasp the concept of the indwelling Christ-nature in us all. A passage from Matthew (5:13-15) came to mind. There would be a tall candle to represent Jesus Christ, a tiny candle to represent the latent Christ-nature in us all, “I am the light of the world, ye are the light of the world ... let your light shine.” The tiny taper would be lighted from the tall one, and placed in a tray of salt at its base, ‘‘Ye are the salt of the earth.” It was a virtual enactment of the Scriptural words of Jesus.

It was simple, graphic, and emotionally moving. So impressive in fact that we felt it should be more widely shared, and so we made it the basis of a Christmas service in which all who attended were invited to participate. Presiding in such a service I would be aware that for some the ritual became a prayer for healing, for others a prayer of healing accomplished. It emphasized that becoming the light of the world meant helping someone else find the light, typified in a parent guiding the hand of a child, or that of an older person whose sight was dim, or hand unsteady. Sometimes someone would light a candle for an absent loved one, or one who had entered another world.

We supplemented the basic concept by typing a wide variety of short affirmative prayers on narrow strips of paper which could be fastened around the small candles with a rubber band. The slip was to be removed by the worshipper and taken as a personal message.

People of all ages and varying religious backgrounds seemed to accept the ritual reverently; it reached past all sectarian barriers.

Finally I approached one of the longtime staff members of the School. What would she think of such a service at Unity? It repelled her. “I’ve gone at this mistakenly,” I realized. I should have followed my own advice and gone to the head of the firm. I made an appointment with Charles Fillmore; found him sitting relaxed before an open fire in his secluded study. I told him about the service. Would he approve of my presenting it at Unity chapel?

He responded quietly, unperturbed. “I don’t know that it should be an official Unity service, but if you want to present it at your Tuesday evening class, I don’t see why you shouldn’t.”

Official Sanction

With this doubtful endorsement I went ahead, getting enthusiastic cooperation from the management.

Myrtle and Charles were the first to light their little candles, followed by everyone else in the crowded chapel. It has been used in almost all Unity ministries ever since.

In Kansas City the service outgrew the Unity chapel, the Scottish Rite Temple and Municipal Auditorium Music Hall. In Los Angeles at Christ Church, Unity it crowded the sanctuary and three chapels, totalling 3500 in attendance. When I was a weekly guest on Betty White’s NBC network show, for several weeks before Christmas we offered to send blessed candles, enwrapped with a personal message to viewers so they could light them in their homes as we lighted ours on the show.

But to me the most touching incident was during the war. One of our Unity boys in military service wrote to tell me about it. His family had mailed him one of the little candles well in advance so that he might be sure to have it by Christmas. On Christmas Eve, self-conscious about possible ridicule, he had waited until all the other young men in his barracks were presumably asleep, then lighted the little taper as he said a silent prayer. Glancing up he was surprised to see most of the other youths, sitting up in their bunks, silently watching the candle until it burned down and was snuffed out. “Merry Christmas!” he said softly, and “Merry Christmas!” was their response.

Meet Charlie Wilson!

It was in 1929 right after the crash that I joined The Kansas City Club, and moved from The Ellison on Armour Boulevard to the eleventh floor of the Club. Only a few of the members lived there, bachelors like me. The rooms were small, and air conditioning as yet was confined to the public rooms, like the second-floor lounge, the fourth and fifth floor dining rooms. But there was a kind of elegance about the Club in those days, and it was a fine place to entertain guests; to have guests to dinner before a play, symphony concert, or athletic event. The Civic Auditorium, and a little later the Music Hall, Arena, and the Orpheum Theater were all close by. I kept my little Pontiac car in a nearby garage, and could get to Unity School in just a few minutes. It wasn’t much longer to the Country Club Plaza where on a Saturday morning I would meet Gladys MacAlister or Ralph Rhea at a riding academy, and take a two or three hour ride out over the little creeks and rolling hills that marked the countryside.

On warm summer days I would drive with the top down, east on Thirteenth Street, and south on McGee Trafficway. One morning as I was driving, clad in my Jodphers, boots, cap and jacket, I had to stop for a traffic light at Main. Another open car filled with five or six merry teen-agers drove up on my left. I was lost in thought, but was brought out of it by the boy in the driver’s seat. He called out in an excited voice, “Why, Charlie Wilson, what are you doing here?” I looked at him in amazement. He and others in the car were strangers to me. I hadn’t been called Charlie since high school days, and these youngsters would have been infants then. Before I could ask how he happened to call me that, the light had changed. The car sped ahead of me and was gone.

I was left feeling as if I had gotten into a different time slot. None of these youngsters had even been born at the time I had stopped being called Charlie. Such coincidences have appeared not only in the obviously life-changing events of my life as if by divine intervention, but in such minor occasions as when I needed a housekeeper during my ministry in Los Angeles in war time.

Finding Stella in nearby Santa Monica seemed a minor miracle. She tippled, took aspirin like vitamins, and was laced so tightly she could bend over only with great effort, but she prepared sumptuous meals that delighted my guests and me. She appeared one day with a broken wrist, sustained in trying to avert a fall. “She was a good cook as good cooks go, and as good cooks go she went” pleading retirement (but went to work instead for a retiring millionaire).

But the coincidence was this. A new book entitled Invasion appeared on the market. It portrayed a Japanese invasion of Los Angeles. A leading character was called Stella. Like “my” Stella, who feared such an invasion, she had a broken wrist, and she was from Santa Monica!

California, Here I Come!

As its name implies, Youth magazine was an effort to interest young people in Unity concepts. To this end we published short stories and novels that embodied a Unity theme, human interest stories from real life, pictures of outstanding young athletes, and of motion picture people whose personal life or that of a character they were portraying would inspire young people. This brought us into contact with motion picture publicity people, who usually were glad to cooperate.

One of these, Frances Deaner of Fox, who proved to be a Unity student, was a great help when, in early 1928, the School sponsored my first lecture tour—to Southern California where there were more centers than in any other urban area.

Unity centers had not, apparently, been anticipated by Unity’s founders, who expected readers simply to continue in their accepted church affiliations, just adding whatever insight Unity offered. But the reaction often was, “If only I had known Unity when I was younger,” or “I want my children to have it.” So a housewife would invite her neighbors to discuss Unity concepts, a class for children would be formed, another for parents would follow, and a Unity center would result.

The meetings were small, but often outgrew a cottage livingroom or enclosed sun porch, and were held in a store front, lodge hall, or hotel parlor. Of the ten at which I was scheduled to speak the one that interested me most was in Hollywood. It was led by a one-time singing actress, Ruth Rea, who had sustained a crippling injury on stage. She attributed her recovery to Unity, and abandoned her theatrical career to become a Unity leader. Her ministry attracted a number of performers, and it was in her modest storefront center that I became acquainted with the vaudeville headliner, Charles “Chic” Sale, who could people a stage with rural characters by his gift of mimicry. He and his similarly gifted sister, Virginia, on later visits to Kansas City, favored us workers at the School by sharing their talents with us.

I was especially eager to meet Frances Deaner, whom I had only known by correspondence. I expected to see a large, forceful executive-type career woman. Instead, she proved to be a matronly little white-haired lady (like my mother, persistently aged 39), who on better acquaintance confided to me that the white hair was due, not to age, but to an undisclosed tragedy that had turned her hair from brown to white overnight. She was determinedly youthful, and would have been indignant if she had known that Will Rogers and some of the other stars whom she served as publicity representative affectionately referred to her privately as “The Little Old Lady of Fox.” Frances was not only personal representative of several of the Fox stars, but also in charge of magazine publicity, so it was not only personal friendship that induced her to arrange interviews for me with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, Don Ameche and Tyrone Power, Fifi D’Orsay, Lupe Velez, Pauline Frederick, Doris Lloyd, and that most colorful performer, Will Rogers; and these contacts resulted in some interesting articles for Youth.

Save My Sight

She arranged for me to meet and interview Alice Faye, a fledgling star on the Hollywood scene, and cautioned me not to disclose the fact that I was a minister, introducing me simply as a free-lance magazine writer. Alice was still in her teens and had gained notoriety through singing a somewhat rowdy song that became very popular. She told me an incident which had strong spiritual implications, quite at variance with the earthy nature with which she was identified in press releases. She had, so she told me, been a member of a Ned Wayburn revue that appeared in a country club assignment on Long Island. Returning by car to New York City late at night after the performance, she sat next to the young man who was driving. He lost control of the car; it crashed into a tree, and though the car was not disabled the windshield was shattered and the broken glass cut a gash over one of her eyes. Blood streamed down over her eyes, and she was terrified of losing her sight.

“I prayed to God to save my sight, vowing that I would try to live every day of my life as if it were the last day!” she told me.

“And have you done so?”

“Yes, and I think He heard my prayer. See.” She pointed to an almost invisible slanting line in the skin just above the eyebrow.

Years later when I was appearing daily on television in Los Angeles, word came to me that Miss Faye, married to Phil (“That’s what I like about the South”) Harris and retired from show business, tuned in on our Unity programs and refrained from attending our services only because they thought Phil’s reputation as a lush would attract unwanted attention to them.

The English Colony

Doris Lloyd was an English actress who came to America to appear opposite George Arliss, famous star of Disraeli and Old English. Her sister, Milba Lloyd, a talented sculptress, and Milba’s husband, George K. Arthur, arrived soon after; he to do a series of wartime comedies with Karl Dane, she to do a series of giant sculptures for the Griffith spectacular, Intolerance. Arthur returned to England, but Milba and Doris remained in Hollywood, and were to become close friends of Norma, Franklyn and me.

There came to be quite a colony of English expatriates. The two sisters often entertained their British friends, and I was a frequent guest in their home near the ocean. It was there that I met Dame May Whitty, fresh from her triumph in Mrs. Miniver, and her handsome husband, Ben Webster.

Complimenting Dame May on her part in Miniver I said, “Won’t you do the rose scene from Miniver for us?”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly remember it,” she protested.

But as the evening wore on, I could see her lips moving slightly, as if she were saying lines. Get a group of actors together—especially English actors, it seemed—and soon they are all “on.” One acts out a near-tragedy or smashing success, and another chimes in with a favorite anecdote. Even Doris as hostess offered her moving rendition of an emotional poem, “Goodbye” (we say it with a tear, we say it with a sigh!). Finally Dame May could hold out no longer, and as if a director had said “Camera!” was doing the rose scene—and to deserved applause.

In a note I kept from her I find this: “I met your Dr. Kelly at Doris Lloyd’s and had the great pleasure of hearing him sing. He was very enthusiastic about Miniver (the movie) and me. I was very gratified and proud.”

Both Doris and Milba were favorites of William Randolph Hearst, and along with Claire Windsor and other beauties were conveyed by private Pullman car and limousine to his castle at San Simeon to help him entertain celebrities. In appreciation his hostesses would find a gold mesh purse by their dinner plate (with a hundred dollar bill in it).

Milba was the introvert to Doris’s extrovert. A hearing loss added to her apparent shyness. She was at her best in her studio, presiding over a lump of clay which seemed to take on life and bring new life to her. The hours of lessons I took with her were marvelous therapy for me, and helped relax any tensions I acquired from listening to and reaching beyond the problems that people unloaded on me. (“You live such a sheltered life, so far from the problems of other people,” people tell me.) Working with Milba and the clay I would feel like a creator. My thoughts would range far and wide, my feelings soar. I would relax from and return to other activities with greater adequacy.

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