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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XXVIII — The Lure of the Orient

What kind of woman would it take to have served as council member and mayor of Seattle; serve as civic hostess to Queen Marie of Rumania, and to Arctic explorers making Seattle their blast-off point? I would soon find out, for I was about to embark on an extended vacation trip to the Orient, joining a tour sponsored by the University of Washington, with Bertha K. Landis as its leader. Her picture in the elaborate folder describing the tour was not encouraging. She appeared to be just the sort of horsey, aggressive person a lady mayor might be expected to be. I would find out when we were to have lunch together the day before sailing.

Vacation trips were invariably lecture trips as well; this was more involved than most.

I would arrive in Seattle in time to give a series of lectures—the Master Class Lessons again. Between meetings I wanted to revise and add to the contents of my book, The Sunlit Way, preparatory to a new edition, and find time for a visit with some nieces and nephews, and most especially my mother who, at eighty, was in remarkably good health. All these, my last living relatives, resided in the greater Seattle area.

Finally the lectures were given, the family contacts made, the revisions of my book typed out on onion skin paper and dispatched to headquarters. I took a cab from the Benjamin Franklin Hotel where I was staying to the Olympic Hotel to meet the formidable ex-mayor and international hostess, Mrs. Landis.

Bertha K. Landis

She was not at all what I had expected; instead of the somewhat masculine, horsey type person I had expected to meet, she was a small, quietly dressed, friendly little lady, with a New England accent reminiscent of my mother’s. After our opening conversation I smilingly confessed what a wrong impression of her that picture had given me. She laughed heartily and admitted that she too had looked forward to our meeting with some misgivings. She had pictured me as a much older, and possibly sanctimonious clergyman who might not fit in too well with the several young university students and a few school teachers who comprised our party.

We became great friends on the thirteen-day trip across the Pacific. Sometimes we would sit together on the boat deck of the President liner and watch the sun go down, and we would explore a wide range of interests, including religion. She had made many trips to the far east, accompanying her late husband on the guided tours he had directed. This was the first one she had been persuaded to give on her own. She brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to us, and her enthusiasm and cheerful nature made the tour delightful and rewarding.

Only one thing marred my complete enjoyment of the trip from day to day; even on our slow crossing, and despite her apparent good health, I had forebodings. If she were to die on the trip I would not only lose a new-found friend, but as the senior male member of the group of seventeen persons, I would be the most likely candidate to take over her responsibilities. I kept trying to discount my feelings, but they persisted. Mrs. Landis had many interests. As I mentioned before, she had made many previous trips to the Orient, accompanying her college professor husband who had promoted such tours as part of the education of his students. On their last trip together he had contracted and succumbed to malaria. This was her first tour alone and as a leader. She was trying to overcome her sense of bereavement, which occasioned many talks with her about survival during the long days at sea; and she became much interested in what I could tell her about Unity’s philosophy. I think our talks helped to free her from depression, but they may also have contributed to that feeling of foreboding in me—the feeling that this dear person who so strongly reminded me of my mother, might be close to transition.

Fabulous Journey

As our ship entered Tokyo Bay and we disembarked at Yokohama to begin our tour, we were all caught up in the sounds, scents, and scenery, the likenesses and differences of these fabled lands, made the more fascinating by the experience and interpretation of our leader. Bertha’s disclosure of her personal feelings, and my own sense of foreboding were forgotten as we became absorbed in the world about us. Because of her gracious spirit and the many friends she had made on previous tours, she was able to arrange many special treats for us.

One of them was a visit to the estate of an Italian count in the foreign quarter of Shanghai, where after much of a day of sightseeing, we sat in reclining chairs in the garden sipping cool drinks served by a white-jacketed waiter, and listening to the plop of an occasional golf ball from an adjacent course. It seemed like the most peaceful place in the world. We could not dream that bombs would be falling in Shanghai within weeks.

Caught in a War

We travelled by easy stages to Seoul in Korea, thence to Mukden in Manchukuo. We were all anticipating what was to be the climax of our tour, visiting some of the great cities of China; Peking, Nanking, Canton, when suddenly our plans were changed.

I was standing in the hotel lobby awaiting the start of our sightseeing tour of the city, when I observed attendants scurrying about, murmuring excitedly, and hanging long black curtains over the lobby windows. “Must be in mourning for the death of some notable,” I surmised. Instead, the local guide who was to assist Bertha for the balance of the tour, brought the alarming news that war had been declared between Japan and China, and was centered around China’s capital city, Peking. We were ordered to leave Mukden within twenty-four hours. Arrangements were made for us to leave that evening by train for the coastal city of Dairen, embarking by ship to Tsingtao, and from there back to Shanghai.

Despite some false rumors, and the disappointment of missing out on the scheduled visit to China’s interior, we all safely reached Shanghai, with the option of completing the tour by a visit to either Hawaii or the Philippines. I was on a steamer enroute to Honolulu when word reached us that the Cathay Tower where we had twice been guests had been bombed.

While in Shanghai a long letter from Aileen Owens arrived.

It broke the news to me that my mother had died very soon after I had seen her. Her transition had been sudden, virtually painless. I could only think of it as a blessed release from a long period of fear-ridden years. When I was only seven or eight she had taken me with her to her mother’s home in Anoka where she nursed my grandmother through two years of cancer. From then on, every time my mother had an ache or pain I would see the frightened look come over her that told me what she was thinking. She had died a thousand deaths worse than the one which was the last.

How curious that for the first time in all my travels before this one, at Aileen’s wise insistence I had given her access to my checking account, safety deposit box, and pertinent information relative to any family emergency.

By that foresight, everything that needed to be done had been done, quietly and in order, before the word reached me. Curious, too, that I had had intimations of a transition. What I call The Knower had apparently been trying to tell me that my mother’s passing was imminent, but possibly Bertha’s similar diction caused me to misinterpret the message.

A Cloud in Sky

The tour of the Orient which climaxed with us tourists scurrying to safety, and the contrastingly peaceful excitement of the Christmas services were the outstanding events to me in 1937. From the first tentative service when Charles and Myrtle Fillmore were the first to light the tiny tapers of the Candlelighting service, it had outgrown the chapel and Ivanhoe Masonic Temple. The setting that lingers most vividly in my memory was the one held in the beautiful Scottish Rite Temple. It was held on a snowy evening, with red-robed trumpeters standing in a niche over the pillared entrance, serenading approaching worshippers with Christmas carols. The place was filled long before the stated hour, disappointing hundreds whose cars blocked the snow-filled streets for blocks around and created a monumental traffic jam.

We needed larger facilities for the service in 1937. Music Hall was the last resort, and Burris Jenkins was the only religious leader who had been granted its use. It was my young editorial associate, Aileen Owens, who succeeded—where the rest of us had failed—in persuading the city fathers to accommodate us. More than three thousand persons crowded the auditorium. It was the greatest Unity meeting ever held in Kansas City. Virtually every Unity worker at the School, from top executives to humblest office messenger was there, accepted it as an attainment of which they were a vital part—as indeed they were. It was a team effort, in which I was humbly proud to have their loving approval.

Yet, though the service marked a new high in attainment, both spiritually and materially, there was an undercurrent in my consciousness that marked it as a culmination rather than a foundation.

I had experienced this before—when I “knew” that my Galveston ministry was about to end; when I left San Diego and John Ring for Minneapolis; Minneapolis for Cleveland, and Cleveland (oh, surely not Cleveland) for Kansas City.

My sleep was disturbed by dreams in which I was planning a sea voyage, and would arrive at the dock for boarding only to find that I had left my embarkation papers at my hotel. By the time I retrieved them and returned, the ship was gone. I had “missed the boat!” Or I would dream of climbing interminable stairs, only to find that the treads were turning downward and I would slip into wakefulness.

Maybe, I tried to tell myself, my malaise was simply a physical reaction to being overworked. After all, I was editor-in-chief, editor of Progress, minister of Unity Society, doing field lectures and fourteen radio programs a week. As one of my contemporaries, Jane Palmer, candidly remarked, “You have too many irons in the fire.” This encounter had taken place long before my present feeling; though maybe recalling it was timely. Keeping the irons hot was not my problem. My activities all tied in one with another. There was a flow, and I rode on the crest of it. It was in the night watches that I seemed to be caught in an eddy.

This reached a climax when one night I had risen and resorted to pacing the floor of the livingroom. There was the feeling of a presence, powerful and pervasive, yet loving. I seemed to feel strong hands grasping my shoulders in back of me, and a silent voice said, “You must go!”

Must go? Why, where, when? There was no answer, but that command was so final! It was something I knew I could not resist, but it was so positive that I did not want to resist.

For the first time in weeks I felt inward peace again.

I made an appointment with Charles Fillmore. Did he think this only my own restlessness, or was it a spiritual compulsion?

“It is a leading,” he said gravely, “but I wish you wouldn’t go.” And I could only say, with a lump in my throat, “And you know that if it’s a leading I have to.”

Next I had to tell my co-worker on Progress, my staunchest friend, Aileen Owens; and Retta Chilcott and Lowell.

“Where would you want to go?” he asked.

“What would you think of Los Angeles?”

“Probably the hardest assignment you could take on,” is the way I remember his response.


Had I not had intimations of this? Certainly I had, though only in fancy. Up to the time the silent voice said I must go, as in a much earlier time it had said more plainly, “You won’t be here very long,” I had looked upon the allure of Los Angeles as being a temptation, like those that challenged the Biblical heroes with whom we are taught to identify; much like my Hero above all heroes, Jesus, who was taken up into a high mountain apart, and shown all the wonders of worldly gain, and had cried, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” I had thought of Los Angeles like that until the voices said, “You must go!” If that was a leading and I was to go anywhere in the human sense, Los Angeles seemed the obvious destination.

After all, over six thousand persons had filled Shrine Auditorium and responded to the meeting so warmly that over 2400 of them enrolled in and completed the Master Class Lessons that continued for six weeks at Trinity Auditorium. This gave added significance to the many importunities to come and establish a city-wide ministry in that great metropolitan area of the Southland. I thought of my first reaction when, on my first trip to California back in March 1916, we crossed the line into the desert area of the state. I had felt like the character in The Girl of the Golden West who watched the mists yielding to the sunrise of a new life cycle and exclaimed, “Oh, my mountains, Oh, my California!” I had the eerie feeling that California had been my home in some past incarnation.


I was also confused by what seemed to me to be an ambivalent attitude toward churches. Mr. Fillmore had often been quite outspoken in his antipathy toward form and ceremony, yet he had seemed pleased by the Candlelighting service, the Easter Flower service, and other rituals it was my lot to work out; and I recalled that back in 1924, before I came to work at the School he had published an article in Unity magazine inviting readers to join “the Unity Church Universal.”

My own attitude toward churches was ambivalent. Unity was my only church. I had been repelled by dismal music, hymns mournful, and sermons dire to threatening; yet when I spoke in Unity’s often makeshift settings, or even at headquarters, in the back of my mind as I spoke I would see vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows and lighted candles.

It was somewhere in the midst of these waverings, self-justification or what-you-wills that a passage from Luke surfaced in my mind: “No man, having set his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

I felt like saying, “Excuse me, God. Where you lead me I will follow. I’ll go with You all the way.”

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