It Works If You Work It: The Legacy of Rev. Dr. Johnnie Colemon
I was still fairly new to the Unity teachings. There was so much to learn. Some of the teachings left me with more questions. Not just “how to” questions—it was the “why” questions that often left me uncertain whether Unity or New Thought teachings were for me.
That is, until the day I heard a guest speaker at what was then the Church of Today in Warren, Michigan, under the leadership of Jack Boland. The Rev. Dr. Johnnie Colemon arrived in a limousine. She walked in proudly, self-assured, elegant, and confident.
I looked around the sanctuary that morning at what was then a congregation of about 95 percent white and saw the anticipation on their faces. I thought, “Whoever this lady is, she must have an awesome message.” What I saw that day was a black woman who was obviously “somebody big” in New Thought, and it was noteworthy since there were only a few African-American Unity ministers in the early 1980s.
Nothing prepared me for the soul-stirring, uplifting, mind-expanding message she delivered with authority.
The Message of Rev. Dr. Johnnie Colemon
I remembered the verse: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).
I recognized authority. On that day, I heard it, I saw it, I felt it. Rev. Dr. Johnnie Colemon spoke as one having authority.
She was easy to listen to. Her message was clear, relatable, and down to earth. She seemed to be speaking especially to me on that Sunday. (I have come to believe the mark of a great speaker is the ability to speak to thousands and having each one feel that the presenter is speaking directly to them.)
Johnnie answered so many questions I had about Unity and the Unity teachings.
She articulated the unsettled thoughts that blocked my grasp of the words I had been hearing. In Detroit at that time, I had access to great teachers—Reverends Ruth Mosley, Jack Boland, and David Williamson. But I had been searching for something that would tie it all together for me.
Johnnie Colemon delivered the words that grabbed my attention: IT WORKS IF YOU WORK IT!
Is Unity for Me?
Back then, I had been wondering if Unity was for me. It seemed Unity was overwhelmingly led by whites, which seemed to be contradictory to the teachings. I remember back then Rev. Ruth Mosley proposed to the Association of Unity Churches creating an Urban Ministerial School in Detroit to increase the number of black ministers. She envisioned ministers serving urban areas creating the opportunity for more diversity in Unity leadership and an increase in African-American membership. But she would return from her visits to the Association and report great resistance to the idea. I wondered if Unity was for me.
I had gone on a wonderful retreat at Unity Village and, while it was magnificent, there were few blacks on the campus. One black minister, Sallye Taylor, gave a short and powerful message but then she was gone. Other than that, the only blacks I saw were two other retreatants and a person who worked at the Unity Inn. I wondered whether behind the kind smiles I was really welcome there.
The optics with token amounts of diversity left me questioning if Unity was for me.
In those days, I wondered also whether the teachings would work for me. My first treasure map had been amazingly accurate to what I desired (treasure-mapping is a visioning tool using pictures to activate our imagination toward attracting what we want to manifest). But sometimes my prayers seemed to be answered and other times not. The teachings did not seem to provide consistent results for me, as I understood them, and I often found myself wondering if the Unity teachings were for me.
Cottage J and African Americans at Unity
1958 Ordination Photo. Johnnie Colemon (top row, 4th person).
I had heard Johnnie Colemon’s story about breaking the barrier of segregation at Unity Village. She was the first African-American student to be allowed to live on Unity grounds, but only after she threatened to leave the ministerial program. When some fellow classmates supported her, the school made available a cottage off in the distance formerly occupied by workers. It was Cottage J that became the quarters on campus designated for African-American students to share. I wondered if Unity was for me.
I needed to know more about how the teachings worked so I could decide if Unity was for me. Quite the skeptic, interested and curious, I continued to learn with Rev. Ruth at West Side Unity Church and Rev. Jack Boland at Church of Today, going back and forth between the two, not willing to commit to either. Something was missing for me, until I heard Johnnie speak.
From one of Johnnie’s messages in her “It Works If You Work It” series:
I insist on my members being involved in study classes. Why? Because as long as you sit there in service with your mouth closed you have nothing to motivate you. There is power in the spoken word, certain words turn on the cells, the organs, the tissues inside of you. I will say it again. This is a do-it-yourself thing. You got to do it for YOU.
“The words I speak are for me, not for you. Until you can put down all the churchiness and cuteness and get involved, you will not get any results … This stuff, if you work it, will work. It will heal your body. It will make your pocketbooks get fat with a whole lot of hundred-dollar bills. It is the kind of stuff that will bring you peace of mind, harmony in your home and in your world, the kind of stuff that will get stirred up inside of you and radiate to all with whom you contact … IT WORKS IF YOU WORK IT.
Standing on Her Shoulders
Johnnie Colemon Day Celebration at Unity Village in 2016
Celebrating Black History Month would be incomplete without remembering Rev. Dr. Johnnie Colemon for her impact and contributions made to Unity and New Thought.
Not only because of her long list of service and community involvement.
Not only because she was an overcomer through racial and social roadblocks to the success she demonstrated.
Not only because of the hundreds of thousands of lives she touched and changed with her bold and dynamic messages, providing clear, practical, inspirational instructions.
Not only because she built an organization using the very teachings of truth she taught others, so that the seminary and organization she founded, the Universal Foundation for Better Living, is still going strong today.
Not only for her prosperity consciousness that caused her to build a megachurch in Chicago with banquet facilities, where truth teachings happen every week, even now.
Not only because she was the first African-American president of the Association of Unity Churches.
Not only because of all the major accomplishments she demonstrated as an example of a life well-lived.
But because every person who stays on the Unity grounds stands on her shoulders. Her courageous act of love and service left a legacy for all.
The Legacy: The Unity Commitment to Inclusion
Every person who aspires to live the message of oneness must embrace the ideal of diversity and inclusion upon which we, who love Unity and the teachings, must continue to build and strive for impacting the generations to come.
Today we talk about diversity and inclusion. Johnnie Colemon set it in motion for the Unity movement and anchored it as a starting place to a work that is still under construction.
Johnnie’s actions of 1955 demonstrated that exclusion is short-sighted, and something that Unity nor New Thought dare not support or promote in today’s changing world. Exclusion blocks equal distribution of opportunity for those who bear gifts, talents, and hearts for making the world a better place.
If we make a sincere commitment to diversity and inclusion, we shall someday see in Unity and New Thought communities the social and cultural demographic shifting that reflect the evolving state of our society. Then we shall share in the enjoyment and divine gift of a wonderfully diverse world rising on the dawn of brighter tomorrows.
And, finally, for every person who has wondered at some point along their journey how to use the truth as taught in Unity and New Thought to live a life that is high-quality and divine, they, too, stand on the shoulders of Rev. Dr. Johnnie Colemon. Her words ring true and powerful to this date: IT WORKS IF YOU WORK IT!
What I know now is that “it works” even better if we all “work it” together.