CHAPTER XXVII — Unity on the Plaza
The Society’s board of directors had for some time realized that a new building in a better location was needed. The Country Club Plaza, some four miles away, was considered the most desirable location, and the board had purchased property there at 47th and Jefferson. They asked me to help promote the project by conducting Sunday evening services in rented quarters nearby. We outgrew all available space in the area and had to move the meetings to Ivanhoe Temple on Linwood Boulevard about halfway between Tracy and the Plaza, where attendance reached a thousand, more than twice that of the Sunday morning meetings. This was great, but did not seem to further the Plaza project. I had a feeling that something was holding it back.
One day as I was returning to the administration building from lunch at Unity Inn I saw Mr. Fillmore in the front office, propped up in a half-standing position on the edge of a desk sometimes used by Rick. He seemed in a relaxed attitude and I ventured to approach him—with a question:
“Mr. Fillmore, I need to know something. I have a feeling that you are not in favor of the Plaza building project. Is that just my imagination, or am I right?”
“Well, yes, you are right. I’m not,” is the way I remember his answer.
“Would you mind telling me why?”
“It’s going to take a lot of money. I want to see contributions going to complete buildings at the Farm.”
“Don’t you think there’s enough for both?”
“In principle, yes. In practice, no. The Farm should come first.” Regretfully I answered, “Then I won’t say any more about it. I can’t work for it if you are against it.”
He was no doubt right, certainly right from his point of view; first things first. But I had put so much time and effort into the project that I had become virtually a part of it. Unity Temple on the Plaza would be “a beautiful setting for a beautiful jewel.” I felt very much let down. I knew then as I know now that no good effort is ever wasted. I knew it then, and could have stated it to someone else—in my mind; I didn’t then know it in my emotions.
I Meet a Playwright—
Back in the 30’s the color line was sharply drawn in such border states as Missouri. Blacks were seated in a special seating section of the Unity Society chapel, and they were not served at Unity Inn, so I was faced with the issue one day when the switchboard operator at Unity School phoned me that a black man from New York City was waiting in the front office to see me. It proved to be Garland Anderson, who had written a play about reincarnation that was appearing on Broadway. I hurried down from my office on the fifth floor to meet him, and ushered him into the conference room where we often welcomed visitors.
He had read some of our publications and was an enthusiastic Unity student. He told me how he had gotten a job as night desk clerk at a small hotel, wiled away the long night hours by trying to write a play. Even though he was a good Unity student he was surprised at its acceptance and an extended run, made possible by the financial support of an eccentric millionaire who wanted people to know about reincarnation.
A modest increase in income provided for a trip to Unity headquarters by the fledgling black playwright, and he was excited about the visit. He had been invited to speak before clubs in two of three cities along the way, and looked forward to still further engagements.
“Wouldn’t it be sensational if you and I could do a lecture series together. We could call it, ‘The Truth in Black and White’!”
I had to admit that it would! Of course today it would be less sensational, but a lot more acceptable.
“Also, I’ve looked forward to a meal at your famous vegetarian Inn!”
—And a Challenge
Fortuitously at this point there was a rap at the door. Could I be interrupted briefly? Mrs. Chilcott needed to see me personally for a moment.
I excused myself, and went to her office. I never did find out what she wanted. I blurted out my need before she could tell me hers.
“Retta, even though he is black and there is a rule, we must let this man have lunch at the Inn. Give the order to the manager to welcome him through the line with me, and I’ll take him to the banquet hall upstairs, where it will be more quiet for us to continue our conversation.”
During lunch Garland told me, with obvious amusement, how he happened to be presented to the Queen of England. He had gone to the Tait Galleries in London to view their recent acquisitions and had reached the inmost room when word came that Her Majesty was approaching. There was no way out of the room except the door she was about to enter. A meeting was unavoidable so an introduction was made, and he could truthfully say that he had met the Queen of England.
We chuckled over the incident, but what was really on my mind was that so far as I’ve been able to learn, he was the first black man to be served at Unity Inn, and the only one for some years to come.
Anderson was a man of superior insight and sensitivity. The play he wrote was evidence of that. I think he deliberately “put me on the spot” to see how I, or the organization I represented, would meet a situation which had to be met in terms of the mass consciousness of the times. He showed evidence of appreciating my ploy in trying to save both him and Unity from embarrassment in meeting a situation whose equable solution was still years away. He knew as well as I did that the acceptance he sought could not be forced but must evolve. He had challenged Unity through me in a matching of wits. We both knew it without acknowledging it.
It is almost two generations later now as I write. There are now no color lines drawn at Unity Village or Unity Temple—and fewer elsewhere.
Who Do You Think Ordained Me?
I had been ordained some years before I was called to Unity, but though I was continually called upon to perform marriages, officiate at christenings and funerals, years went by without a Unity ordination. In those early years there was little or no specific training in public speaking or how to conduct special services. The founders would simply decide that someone should be ordained and confer that recognition forthwith. They found it didn’t always work out (it doesn’t always work out no matter what qualifications are required) so when I inquired about ordination they would say, “We’re not doing it any more.”
Young workers were called on to lead meditations and make announcements, and some of them asked me for help, so I started a public speaking class in which seventeen young men enrolled. It was perhaps the initial effort toward a training school, which continued with Roland Rexroth using my outline of instruction after I became involved in the Los Angeles ministry.
Some very practical matters may have had a part in persuading the founders to modify their ban on ordination. Both Francis Gable and I travelled and lectured in the field several months in the year. We travelled by train—no airplanes for some time to come—and someone brought it to the attention of the management that if ministers were duly ordained and their names listed in an official yearbook of a religious movement they could travel at half-fare.
So one day in September, 1934, Elsie Shaw, head of the Field Department, told us that it had been decided that Francis and I should be ordained by Mr. Fillmore in a private ceremony in the conference room. On schedule Elsie, Francis and I assembled as planned. The room had been used for a committee meeting of some sort, chairs were scattered here and there, a table and the floor were littered with abandoned papers. Mr. Fillmore did not appear. We began looking at watches. Time went on.
“He’s probably been stopped by someone on the way,” Elsie remarked.
“You don’t suppose he’s forgotten it, do you?” Francis suggested.
Elsie went to a phone, and came back to admit that he had overlooked the matter, but would join us right away.
Soon he appeared, and joined the little circle we had formed.
“About time you should become legitimate,” or some such remark he made, smilingly.
“Mr. Fillmore, wouldn’t you like to lead us in a prayer first?” Elsie asked.
“Well, all right,” he responded, and spoke an audible prayer. Then, turning to Francis and me, he asked, “Who do you think ordained me?”
I was off in thought, recalling my first ordination in the little rose-bowered church in San Diego some eighteen years before. I could almost hear soft music, the ordaining words, “In the name and through the power ...” when I was brought back to the conference room by Francis’ response: “Why, God, of course.”
“No sir. I ordained myself. No use making a lot of fuss about it. You’re ordained!”
Somehow we didn’t feel like it. Elsie sensed this, shared it too, I think. Following a constrained silence she suggested to Mr. Fillmore, “Ordination means a lot to them. Wouldn’t you like to lead us in a prayer of consecration?” He did so; he was not irreverent; he was simply ill at ease, which was rare with him.
Spirit Told Me To
Rare indeed. I thought of the time when, having heard that he no longer restricted himself to a strict abstention from meat eating, I had accosted him with the question, “Is it true that you’ve modified your diet, and now include fish in it?”
“Would you mind telling me why?”
“Spirit told me to!”
“Great! In that case I’d like you and Cora to join me at the Club for a trout dinner.” They did, and his light-hearted banter made the meal a happy occasion.
Charles and Cora made their home in a cottage near Unity Village where for some reason Cora raised a small herd of sheep. This gave rise to a frightening experience that she confided to me. It seems that a veterinarian had prescribed pills for some sheepish ailment. She had gone to the drugstore, gone to the market, and came home early to prepare the evening meal. Coming in the front door of their cottage she had dropped the little sack of sheep pills on a desk in the living room, and proceeded to the kitchen to put the groceries away. Meanwhile Charles had arrived, saw the little sack on the desk, and mistaking the lozenges for candy, ate several of them.
Cora was horrified. Suppose they should contain some poisonous element, and he should become ill! While Charles was freshening up in the bathroom, she phoned the druggist and asked him if the pills would be dangerous for human consumption.
“How many were eaten?” he asked.
“Four or five, I think,” she answered.
“Who was it that ate them?”
She didn’t want to tell them it was the founder of Unity. “A—a— little boy!” she stammered.
“How old is he?” the druggist demanded.
“Well, he’s ninety-four years old,” she admitted.
The druggist roared with laughter. “Don’t worry. I don’t think they’ll harm him.”
Mr. Fillmore came in as she was concluding the story, and joined in our laughter.
© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.