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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XLII — Moment of Truth

Norma loved to give parties. When she gave one to celebrate my birthday in 1958, she reminded us that this was also the twentieth anniversary of our ministry together. To everyone but me that announcement was merely the occasion for more felicitations; but I felt as if a relative of Banquo’s ghost was the uninvited guest, to make me aware of how much we three—and the world around us—had changed in that score of years.

There never has been, perhaps never again could be, another trio of such diverse but related talents. My two associates were, I think, unique in the field. They possessed a colorful and dramatic flair that I did not have, and served to highlight what quieter talents I did have. We worked together as a team for all those years, and what wonderful years they had been!

In that “moment of truth” I realized as never before how much the world around us and some of the things within us had changed.

Despite, and perhaps because of world changes, the growth of the church continued unabated. Our radio and television ministry had contributed to an increased interest in Unity throughout the Southland. One visitor told me that one could walk down any residence street in the city and could hear sets tuned-in to the broadcasts of Christ Church, Unity. Since our ministry began the number of Unity centers and churches had increased from ten to forty-one between San Diego and Santa Barbara.

Norma, starting a new career at the age of sixty, had become the most effective woman minister I have ever known (I’d name Sue Sikking, founder of Santa Monica’s Unity-By-The-Sea as a close second). Now as she was nearing eighty some of us who loved her most protectively felt that her responsibilities should be diminished; certainly not increased.

Franklyn, as a minister of music, was as great in his field as Norma was in hers. I had thought of him as my logical successor. He wanted to be, and Norma and I wanted him to be. However, popular as he was, the congregation never whole-heartedly accepted him as a speaker. Although we never broached the subject I think his own secret realization of the fact, more than health problems or any other reason, motivated his gradual withdrawal from the ministry. On his plea that administrative duties, which he managed very well for the church but less successfully in his personal life, absorbed his energies, he urged us to choose someone else as church soloist. From several who were considered, John Lambert, staff singer at Forest Lawn, was chosen. He did a good job. Nobody could replace Franklyn in that capacity, as indeed John was the first to admit.

Nothing ordinary ever happened to Franklyn. He was always the bride at the wedding, the corpse at the funeral. He functioned in superlatives. He was like a car whose motor was too big for the frame—and he always raced the motor. His enthusiasms were strong but usually short-lived. A fish bowl must become an aquarium, a parakeet in a cage must become four (whom he named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in a larger cage, then he lost interest and gave them all away.

The trait was useful to the church. He was our first Men’s Group leader, first Y.O.U. leader, first Prayer Group organizer, and in a few months found someone else, perhaps less dramatic but more enduring, to carry on. That was the way Clint and Virginia Herberger, Doctor Van McElwain, June and Bing Jones, Fredericka Singleton, and Marietta Ide, became active with us. Two former Kansas Citians, Arthur Beall and Lela Shearer, served as temporary organists, to be followed by Leslie Jolliff who, like John Lambert, was recruited from the Forest Lawn staff. Andy McCulloch succeeded Joe Ehler as custodian, then Bob Riley.

Many of our group leaders and teachers became licensed teachers and ordained ministers, such as Violet Goetchius, June Jones, Marietta Ide, Gill Edwards, and Ronald Potter. About Violet you already know. June left us to serve the La Crescenta church with Mary Gladys Adams. Marietta had been in charge of our Prosperity Bank department, then became Norma’s assistant, and following Norma’s retirement, leader of the Business Women’s group. Ron Potter grew up in Christ Church and after a stint in the Navy and graduation from Pepperdine College, became Y.O.U. leader following June Jones. Ron and Marietta were ordained in the same group, and he became my platform assistant and associate minister when I could no longer count on Franklyn.

Meanwhile Unity School asked us to make room for Victor Zarley and his wife, Terri, as ministerial trainees.

Through the years, many leaders from the New Thought field and Unity headquarters became our guest speakers, most notably Charles and Cora Fillmore, May Rowland, Ralph Rhea, Richard Lynch, Elizabeth Sand Turner, and Eric Butterworth. John Hinkle, from the Sacramento church, was a frequent and popular guest.

A Domino Reaction

June 4th was the occasion for another party, to celebrate Norma’s eightieth anniversary, a gala celebration in my Mansfield Avenue duplex apartment, destined to be the last one in those quarters as it turned out. Franklyn, Claire Windsor, Jean Bello, Harriet Lee and Betty Bowman, Lytle and Toni Harrison, all the church staff members, were among the guests that came to bask in her love and wit, and share their own. No one seemed to want to leave, but finally as they did, and Franklyn was getting his car to take her home, Norma remarked that it was time for her to retire.

“Yes, Normie, the party did run overtime.”

“Darling, I didn’t mean time to go to bed. I meant time to retire from the ministry.”

Her remark offered an opportunity, though badly timed, to broach a subject that was sentimentally distressing. Yet I knew it must be faced. I did not want her to retire, yet I didn’t want her to present herself as failing in mental acuity.

“A lot of folks will disagree with that,” I ventured. “But much as I will miss you if you do, I think you are right. You’ve earned it. Not that you should be inactive, but you should have freedom to explore all the things you’ve intended to do if only you had the time to give to them,” and lest this was too abrupt, “We don’t have to decide right now. Let’s just give it some prayerful thought.”

“I already know you are right,” was her response.

Other challenging changes followed. Franklyn sold his Laguna Hills cottage in favor of one in Cathedral City near Palm Springs, and told me that he would seek to augment a modest allowance from the church by real estate investment in that booming desert area. At the same time he was relinquishing the Mansfield Avenue abode.

Ever since the move to Mansfield I had missed the ocean, which had often been my confidante in times of stress. My thoughts turned now to my second love—a height such as a hilltop, or failing that, a penthouse. Even in LaJolla I had lived on a hillside, and in the Palisades on a higher one.

Down to the Sea

Whenever I’ve been troubled in spirit, I’ve always sought the sea, or if that was too remote, a lake, a pond, a river. This tendency, I would suppose, may be innate though perhaps often unrecognized in us all, since all sentient life came out of the prehistoric seas; and even in our prenatal life we all have come out of water. A more obvious pull to the sea could be that my parents were New Englanders and lived close to the Atlantic seaboard. Also when I was just starting into the first grade of school, I lived with an older sister and her growing family on an island in Lake Superior, across from Duluth.

So as these unwanted but inevitable changes took place in my outward world, without conscious volition my thoughts turned toward “a house with windows wide, a-looking toward the sea,” and as if by magic, an answer.

A House with a View

I met a brilliant young architect, Thornton Ladd. “I’m thinking of making a change,” I remarked to him soon after our meeting. “Do you know of any place close in where I could have a garden and a view?”

“I know of only one such location that might be available,” he responded. “It’s difficult to find. Let me draw you a diagram of how to reach it.”

That was the beginning of my third Hill House. Standing on the lot which was on the point of a hill at the end of a cul-de-sac, I could see the city hall to the east, a valley below, the basin that is midtown mostly hidden by an intervening hill, and Beverly Hills and the distant twinkling sea beyond to the west. It was there we built an oriental-modern type dwelling with a patio, a pool, an overspreading tree, a dwarf bamboo.

Thornton called it his economy house, which was his name for anything under a hundred thousand dollars, I learned. It was very much under that, but became a joint venture between the church and me—mostly me—and I deeded it to the church with the right to lifetime tenancy.

Franklyn visited it only once. I got word soon afterwards that he was suddenly taken ill. I was called to his bedside. We both knew that it would be our last meeting in this plane. I had two services for him, one in Palm Springs, and another at Forest Lawn. As hundreds of those who had loved him filed by at the close, a flood of memories assailed me. Mother Berg’s valiant words of long before rang in my inner ear, “God lives yet!” helped me.

I Meet a Queen

Sheik Mar-Elia, an Arabian chiropractor and naturopath, who ministered to the well-being of many of the Hollywood celebrities, was a devoted friend and member of Christ Church. One day in the late spring of 1951 his beautiful wife, Helen, phoned inviting me to attend a dinner and reception in their home to meet the queen mother Nazli of Egypt, and her three daughters, sisters of King Farouk, who had succeeded his father, King Fouad, as ruler of Egypt.

The queen mother had offended Farouk by giving consent to a marriage between her chamberlain, who was a Christian, and her daughter, Fathia who was of course a Moslem. He deprived his mother and sister of their royal prerogatives. The couple was married in San Francisco in 1950 just a year before their appearance in Los Angeles, where they planned to establish their home.

Some fifty guests were assembled in the Mar-Elias’ spacious living room. I was standing across the room from the divan to which the queen mother had been escorted. For a moment there was a break in the group that had gathered around her. I saw her raise her hand in a beckoning gesture in my direction, and I looked around to see for whom the gesture was intended. There was no one near me. Hesitantly I crossed the room.

“Was that gesture intended for me?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, Doctor Wilson. I have heard of Unity and you, and it is very important that I should talk with you. I have had some prophetic dreams that I must ask you about. Also I have come to this country for help for a crippling back injury. I need your prayers.”

“I am honored. But I’ve never met someone like you before. Forgive my ignorance and tell me how I should address you.”

“Oh, just call me your friend,” she responded, smiling.

That didn’t help. I thought of “Ma’am” and “Majesty” which I seemed to remember from some book or movie, but avoided using, and she dominated the conversation which is the prerogative of royalty. Finally I ventured the remark, “The other guests here are going to dislike me, Ma’am.”

“Why should they do that?” she countered.

“Because I am monopolizing your attention, and everyone here is wanting a share in it.”

“But I may not have an opportunity to see you again, and there is still much I want to know from you.”

“Let’s make an opportunity.” And we did. She, her daughter Fathia, and son-in-law, Riad Ghali, were dinner guests soon after, at my home in Hancock Park.

Queen Nazli enjoyed attending Christ Church, became acquainted with some of my staff, and invited my associate minister, Ronald Potter, and me to dinner with her and the Ghalis.

She gave me the address as 1125 Tower Road in Beverly Hills, but I was unprepared to find that it was an elegant mansion of twenty-eight rooms set back on a wide lawn.

It was an informal dinner; just Nazli, Riad and his Egyptian mother who spoke no English, Fathia, Ronald and me. Fathia served the dinner, which featured a large bowl of what I took to be rice. I remarked on this: “I’ve never seen yellow rice before.”

“Oh, that’s not rice. It’s steamed wheat, and the entire meal has been prepared by Fathia. I’m so proud of her. In the palace of Cairo she had twenty servants at her command. Now she is learning to be an efficient housewife!”

International Emergency

A few weeks later Nazli phoned me, in great distress, apparently emotional rather than physical. She could not disclose the reason for her feelings over the phone. Could I come to see her?

I could, and she confided to me that a representative of the State Department in Washington had visited her on what he described as a very sad mission: that because of difficulties with the Nasser administration he must present its request that she leave our country. “We have established our home in Beverly Hills, my son-in-law is deeply involved in business. We love it here. Please pray that God will find a way to let us stay.”

Two weeks later she again phoned to ask me to come to her. “The most wonderful thing has happened. The same man came to see me again. He said that after he met with his superiors and reported what kind of person I was, they deliberated, and asked him to return with an apology. They invited me to be a guest of America as long as I live.”

Our friendship continued on through the years. I have possibly a score of letters from her after the changes that brought me back to Kansas City. One referred to her visit to her daughter and grandsons in their home in Hawaii, which started as a brief visit but became a prolonged one.

It was in Honolulu in the later sixties that I saw her the last time. I was conducting a seminar there arranged by William Helmbold and Stan Hampson. At the conclusion of one of the meetings I was about to step down from the platform when I heard a woman’s voice saying timidly, “Doctor Wilson, do you remember me?”

It was Queen Nazli. “Why,” she reproached me, “didn’t you let me know you were coming?”

I could not admit with grace that I had not known for sure that she was in Honolulu; indeed, I had assumed that she would have long since returned to the Mainland, nor did I learn until long afterward that her fortunes had declined. “Dear Lord, what can I say?” I prayed.

What came out was, “Dear friend, if I had let you know I was coming it would have imposed upon you—since I know your gracious spirit—the necessity of entertaining me, or offering an excuse for not doing so!”

“You must come to dinner,” she insisted. “Fathia will want to see you, and I want you to know her two sons. They’re almost grown up now. They were mere toddlers when you last visited us.”

It was a touching reunion.

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