Maya Angelou was in a vocal class in 1955 when she experienced a spiritual turning point. She was reading aloud from H. Emilie Cady’s classic Lessons in Truth, the book she had selected for the class, when the instructor asked her to read a passage over again.
Angelou felt she looked foolish, being asked to read it again. As a young aspiring dancer in a room full of serious singers, she was already self-conscious, plus she was the only student of color and the youngest in the class.
So when the instructor, Frederick Wilkerson, asked her to repeat that line, “God loves me,” she said it louder and more strongly. In that instant, she knew she was a child of God, and had to leave the room. Once away from the others, she started weeping because of what she realized.
“God loves me … this God that made the leaves, the stars and rivers … and you, loves me, Maya Angelou.”
It was humbling, Angelou would later recall. Those words gave her a newfound freedom to go out and do good things and to do them well.
“That’s why I am who I am, because God loves me, and I’m amazed at it,” she said in a 2003 TV interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013. (Watch the interview.)
From this experience Angelou gained a new appreciation for praying. Her prayers focused on offering thanks, “Thanking God for God, thanking God for Jesus, and thanking Jesus for Jesus.”
Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, as Marguerite Annie Johnson to Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson. She grew up in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. Divorced twice, Angelou had one child, Guy Johnson.
In 2002 the poet published her sixth memoir title A Song Flung Up to Heaven. In this autobiographical work, she described her return from Africa to the United States, her civil rights activities, and the writing of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). She sent a personal copy of A Song Flung Up to Heaven to Unity minister Rev. Eric Butterworth, whom she considered a mentor.
Butterworth wrote back to Maya. “You have a unique gift of so energizing your words that they bring the reader right into your experience. You will never know how many people you bless by enabling them to get in touch with their long-buried deep feelings waiting and needing to be addressed.”
Of Angelou’s life journey, Butterworth wrote: “Both Olga [Butterworth’s wife] and I feel that a great composer could transpose your journey, which encompasses the full scale of human emotions and spiritual ecstasy, into a living symphony. It could then be lyricized into an opera.”
Angelou never forgot what life-aligning influence Emilie Cady’s Lessons in Truth had on her spiritual maturity. She delved into Unity thought and writings and continued her close relationship with Butterworth. Maya called Butterworth one of her “living teachers.”
Through the years Angelou shared her love for Unity with her family members. Her niece Rosa Johnson, who Angelou “loved like a daughter,” recalled her Aunt Maya introducing Daily Word when she was just 14 years old.
“When I was a child, [Aunt Maya] instilled in me the truth of the oneness of all people.” Johnson also remembered her aunt taking her to a Unity center in San Francisco near where they lived. Whenever Angelou traveled, her niece would call her each day and read the word for the day to her.
Her affiliation with the Unity movement through the years and her profound influence earned her an honorary degree. Plans were made to award the degree at Unity World Headquarters but Angelou transitioned shortly before the ceremony. Angelou died May 28, 2014.
To accommodate the sad circumstances, Unity representatives Lynne Browne and Pat Williamson attended Angelou’s memorial held at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on June 7, 2014.
At the service, they sat in front of the Chapel in an area reserved for guests, Pat engaged in a conversation with a Mrs. Clay seated next to him and immediately struck a friendship. Mrs. Clay introduced Williamson and Brown to other friends, including Marguerite, who knew Maya Angelou for decades. Marguerite commented on Maya’s love of Unity and managed to get the two Unity representatives into a private area reserved for the immediate family. Pat Williamson presented the honorary degree to Maya Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, and they met other family members and friends, including President Bill Clinton.
“It was a perfect way to honor Maya, intimate and personal, creating a space for us to share words of support with family members,” Lynne Brown said. “The entire experience was filled with meaning and grace.”
President Barack Obama awarded Maya Angelou the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom on February 15, 2011. Watch the video.
As British journalist Gary Younge concluded, “Probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou’s life literally is her work.”