Rev. Charline Manuel, a Unity minister for nearly 30 years, went “kicking and screaming” into the ministry. Manuel, elected chair of Unity World Headquarters Board of Directors in 2022, says “breadcrumbs on the path” guided her journey, starting from when she was growing up in Detroit. Her mother subscribed to Unity materials and left them around the house, and then later, a coworker often left Daily Word on Manuel’s desk.

But it wasn’t until she was going through a difficult divorce that she agreed to go with her coworker to Detroit’s West Side Unity Church, led by the late Rev. Ruth Mosley, D.D. Mosley had founded the church in 1964 and then founded the Unity Urban Ministerial School in 1979.

“I sat in the very back so if I didn’t like it, I could sneak out,” Manuel recalls. “But Ruth Mosley spoke directly to me, and I thought, How did she do that? She knew exactly where I was and exactly what I was going through. I thought, Okay, I’m going to come back next week.

Curiosity prompted her to continue attending West Side Unity Church—and it led her to move to Kansas City to take classes at what was then called the Unity School of Religious Studies. Her first instructor: Rev. Sylvia Sumter.

Fast-forward to 2023, when Sumter was elected chair of Unity Worldwide Ministries Board of Directors. The moment became the first time in Unity history that the chairs of both Unity boards were held by African Americans—let alone African-American women.

‘I Knew I Was Home’

Sumter, senior minister at Unity of Washington, D.C., began her path to Unity in the early 1970s. A native of Brooklyn, New York, she followed the prompting of her reflexologist to go listen to the late Eric Butterworth, a leading figure in the Unity movement. After hearing Butterworth speak at Unity Center of New York City, Sumter says, “I was hooked.” She began attending evening meditations, Tuesday lunchtime lectures, and Sunday services.

“It was very, very powerful,” Sumter says. “I knew I was home. I knew this was for me.”

After watching and listening to Butterworth one Sunday, Sumter thought, I could do that. She then heard a voice within say, “You will do that.”

“I was startled and thought, Where did that come from?” she remembers. “And then I spent the next eight years running from that intuition until I couldn’t run anymore. I had to just surrender.” One thing that kept her from seeing herself as a minister was the lack of female ministers at any churches in the early 1970s.

“I was searching for a role model or someone to tell me that what I heard within my own being and in my own soul was actually true because representation does matter,” Sumter says. “But I knew the call was true. Finally, I just had to say, ‘I need to pursue this path.’”

As with Manuel, curiosity drew Sumter to Unity Village. When she attended a retreat there, she met Rev. Sallye Coe Taylor, the only African American on the Unity School for Religious Studies faculty.

“When I saw Sallye, I thought, Okay, there’s a sister here.” Sumter says. “I ended up seeing that if she could do it, then maybe it’s okay for me to feel like I’m being called to it.”

When Sumter joined the faculty in 1987, Taylor left.

“She said to me, ‘Now that you are here, I can go,’” Sumter recalls. Sumter was then the only African-American female faculty member on campus, although she was later joined by two African-American men, Maurice Williams and Mustafa Willingham.

Sumter planned to leave to take on a church ministry but decided to stay and teach in the Ministerial Education Program and in the Continuing Education Program. “I loved it,” says Sumter, who also served as chair of the Communication Studies and Skills Department. She particularly loved mentoring African-American students—including Manuel, whom she remembers as an excellent student and speaker.

Explore the inspiring journeys of Revs. Charline Manuel and Sylvia Sumter, breaking barriers as the first African-American chairs in Unity's history.

Guided by Unity Principles

Both Manuel and Sumter have experienced challenges on their paths to becoming leaders. Manuel even wrote a book about the difficulties she encountered: The Power of One Accord: 7 Spiritual Keys to Harness Synergy in the Boardroom (One Accord Strategies, Inc., 2018).

“There’s only so much you can be prepared for, and then you just have to get out there and trust Spirit,” she says. “What I know now is to stay grounded in Truth, trust the presence of God within, and then be absolutely committed to being in integrity.

“It took me a while to grasp the Unity principles. But once I did, I decided to live by them, and they saved my life. If I stay grounded in that, I’m good.”

For Sumter, the biggest challenge came in her first ministry position at Unity of Washington, D.C., where she’s been senior minister since 1991. While she was considering taking the position, she asked, “Are you sure this is the place, Spirit?” She was directed to Numbers 27:15-23 in the Hebrew Bible where God told the high priest Eleazar to help Moses lead the people to the promised land.

“I thought, well, maybe I’m called to be of assistance and to help here,” Sumter recalls. She accepted the position and immediately encountered issues.

“It was a baptism by fire,” she says, “and I had to question, ‘Lord, why did you bring me here?’ And the answer was that I was called here. I made the commitment that I was going to see that process through, no matter what. I stayed true to my integrity in terms of my principles. I was going to stand in my truth no matter what.”

The church ended up splitting, with most of the white congregants leaving.

“I remember one woman coming up to me and asking, ‘What are we going to do now?’ And I said, ‘We’re going to do church.’ I went home and asked, ‘Lord, what are we going to do now?’ And Spirit’s words have been part of my mission statement to this very day: ‘You are to build spiritual consciousness and spiritual community.’ That has been my drive and my motivation. If you stay true to your principles of truth, you will survive.”

Sumter brought that same conviction to Unity Worldwide Ministries, where she served on the board for five years before being elected chair. Manuel was on the board of Unity World Headquarters for seven years before being elected chair.

When she learned that she was the first person of color to serve as chair, Manuel cried. “I’m not a crier, but the tears just started to come,” she says. “You stayed,” she said to Sumter in a recent conversation, “and then I came along, and you were my light. It occurred to me that maybe I’m somebody else’s light and that this leadership role is not only possible, it’s happening.”

Manuel says she came to the board with no particular agenda. She planned to follow the advice of ministers who suggested she just listen during her first few board meetings. But when lunch was served at the first meeting and she noticed that she and the waitstaff were the only African Americans in the room, Manuel says she knew what was hers to do. “I didn’t like the look, the feel, and the tone of it,” she remembers. “I thought, This has to change.”

Throughout her tenure on the board, Manuel led several strategic committees and advocated for the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that have been implemented since 2017.

“When I was elected chair, for me, that was sort of an exclamation point on the work that we’ve done,” Manuel says.

Creating a World That Works for All

When Manuel’s tenure as chair ended in November 2023, the board had three African-American members: Revs. Sandra Campbell, James Parker, and Tawnicia Ferguson Rowan. “I felt like, I can go now. I’ve done my two cents’ worth of work here,” Manuel says. “As I walk the Unity Village campus today, it reflects the diversity I had not previously experienced. I’m proud of where Unity is now and happy to represent New Thought on the global front,” adds Manuel, who’s also co-vice chair of the board of trustees for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. “I will continue to serve the Unity movement in whatever way allows us to create a world that works for all.”

Sumter, on the other hand, was just hitting her stride. “There’s still work to be done,” she says. “Even though I have a full-time church and other commitments, I felt like this has to happen. I need to step in here because we’re at such a critical juncture, not only in our movement but in our world. Representation matters. I know that my being here in itself represents a path forward. Those who came before me, they live on. I’m willing to step in and step up.”

Sumter founded a national movement called Stand Up For Humanity with the goal of bringing together people from all walks of life and spiritual paths to promote positive action for the greater good.

“There’s a greater consciousness of which we are a part,” she says. “What I’m hoping is that we recognize it’s not just about transforming our individual lives. We have a greater mission and call. We better transform this world and this earth if we are to be here, if we are to further life on the planet and also create a life for everyone that is filled with health, happiness, and hope.”

Visit Unity Village for the 2024 Celebrating Our Soul Conference: Consciously Creating Change where Rev. Charline Manuel is a keynote speaker.

This article appeared in Unity Magazine.

About the Author

Annie L. Scholl is an Ohio-based freelance writer who contributes to Daily Word® and Unity Magazine®. Her work has been published on Huffington Post, Brevity, and The Sunlight Press. She recently finished her first memoir and blogs at

Annie L. Scholl


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