Colemon, Johnnie 1921(?)—
Johnnie Colemon 1921(?)—
Not everyone agrees with the Reverend Dr. Johnnie Colem-on’s interpretation of the message of Jesus Christ, but it is hard to argue with her independent spirit or the success she has achieved through the practice of her principles. Her conviction, as stated in “What We Believe” published by the Universal Foundation for Better Living (UFBL), which she founded, is that “it is God’s will that every individual on the face of this earth should live a healthy, happy, and prosperous life.” She has promised that every person has access to the power of God in him or her for living a loving and successful life. Given this, her own prosperity can be seen as a confirmation of that promise.
Colemon classifies her teaching as part of the world wide “New Thought” religious movement.Dollars and Sense calls it the “message of practical Christianity.” Despite her charisma and success, she is not without her detractors. Critics claim that she is too enamored of wealth, saying she ignores Bible passages in which Jesus warns against trusting in earthly treasure. She responds by pointing out that money can be the instrument through which God’s message is heard on earth. Addressing this issue, Colemon said in the Chicago Tribune,” money is God in action. God is my source of supply ….” So on the other hand, in a culture in which money and religion are growing more inextricably linked, her candor might even be viewed as a breath of fresh air.
As a child, Colemon was not particularly religious. While growing up in Columbus, Mississippi, her early ambitions were tied to music and show business. At one time she hoped to play the saxophone professionally, at another she worked towards becoming a Broadway dancer. In the 1940s, she left Mississippi to attend Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. During that time the college was known, at least partially, for the beauty of its women. Attending Wiley was not always an easy experience for this self-proclaimed “ugly duckling,” but Colemon excelled and was even elected by her classmates to the honorary position of “most versatile student on campus.”
After graduation from Wiley, Colemon moved to Chicago, where her exceptional talent helped her to succeed in a wide variety of occupations, including a position as
At a Glance…
Born in Centervilte, AL; daughter of John and Lula (Parker) Haley; married Don Nedd (deceased). Education: Wiley College, Marshall, TX, BA, 1943.
Chicago Market Center, price analyst; Chicago Public Schools, teacher; Chicago Port Authority, director; Chicago Transit Authority Oversight Committee, member; Association of Unity Churches, president; Christ Unity Temple, founder and pastor, 1956-74; Universal Foundation For Better Living, founder, 1974—; Christ Universal Temple and Complex, founder and pastor, 1974—; Johnnie Colemon Institute, founder and president, 1974—; International New Thought Association, chairperson of 60th Anniversary Congress, 1975; operator, Heavenly Hamburger House.
Awards: Citations, Association of Unity Churches, 1966, 1969, 1970; Golden Anniversary Award, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, 1972; Service to Youth Award, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), 1973; Outstanding Christian Service, Civic Liberty League of Chicago, 1974; Women’s Day Annual Black Excellence Award, Operation People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH), 1974; Year of the Woman Award, PUSH Foundation, 1975; Certificate of Appreciation, Chicago City Council, 1975; Humanitarian Award, Blackbook Business and Reference Guide, 1976; Excellence in Religion, PUSH Foundation, 1977; Top 100 Black Business and Professional Women citation, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, 1985; Par Excellence Award, Blackbook Business and Reference Guide, 1986; Candace Award, National Coalition of 100 Black Women, 1987; numerous citations and commendations from various city governments; awarded several honary degrees including, Honorary Doctorate in Divinity, Wiley College, 1977; Doctor of Human Letters and Doctor of Divinity, Monrovia College and Industrial Institute of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa.
Addresses: Office– Pastor, Christ Universal Temple, 1 1901 S. Ashland, Chicago, IL 60643.
public school teacher and also price analyst for the Chicago Market Center. Other noteworthy public service positions she has held include director of the Chicago Port Authority, a very important position in a major city with a large shipping trade, and commissioner on the Chicago Transit Authority Oversight Committee. Her commitment to Chicago was not overlooked. August 18, 1985, was declared “Reverend Dr. Johnnie Colemon Day” in Chicago by then-mayor Harold Washington. Colemon has been most noted for accomplishments in her religious career, however, a career that received a jump-start when she was diagnosed with a fatal illness in her early 30s.
In an interview with Dollars & Sense, Colemon referred to her illness as the “greatest thing that ever happened in my life.” At the time, of course, it hit her with a devastating impact. Having learned that she was expected to live only six months more, she came upon some pamphlets of the Unity School of Christianity. The cover of one pamphlet in bold letters proclaimed, “God is your health; you can’t be sick.” Having just learned of her condition, these words provoked a great deal of disbelief and resentment in Colemon. “I began to question and examine the nature of God,” Colemon told Dollars & Sense. Her mother encouraged her to travel to the Unity School of Practical Christianity in Missouri and see for herself whether there was anything to the Unity School’s doctrine.
Colemon felt a conversion take place within her the minute she walked in the door, and a representative of the school promised that what they taught could cure her. Not only did she find a cure there, but she started taking classes and decided to become an ordained minister. One of the first miracles to take place in her life was a rise in self-esteem that pertained to her physical beauty. She warned, however, that one should not think of miracles as being produced like “a cake from a recipe” but should realize that miracles are already “produced inside of you, waiting for you to bring [them] forth in the form that you need …,” she emphasized in Dollars & Sense. She excelled at the seminary as she had done in her early career in Chicago, and even became the first African American to attain the office of president of the Association of Unity Churches while still in the seminary.
Having finally been ordained a minister, Colemon set up her first ministry in Chicago, the Christ Unity Center, in a local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The center, a member of the Association of Unity Churches, had a congregation of only a few dozen members at its inception in 1956. Church growth was steady, and by 1963 she was able to incorporate and build the Christ Unity Temple, a building large enough to serve 200 worshippers. It was then that word of her unique approach to the message of Christ began to spread and church attendance soared. An expansion program was begun that included a 1,155 seat wing that was already too small by the time it opened in 1973.
During this period of growth, Colemon began to reexamine her ideas about God. She realized that she no longer fit comfortably within the Unity School of Christianity, partly because of a latent racism she still found within its structure. Never one to be timid when bold action is required, Colemon disassociated herself and her congregation from the Association of Unity Churches to become an independent church in 1975. She renamed her church Christ Universal Temple and also founded the UFBL, a nondenominational organization of “New Thought” movement churches dedicated to putting the tools for abundant living within the reach of each individual.
With church facilities still too small and faced with the challenge of founding a new religious organization, Colemon knew that she had to build. She wanted her facility to be much more than a conventional church that simply offered religious services. She saw the potential to create a center of education, prayer, and outreach all across the nation and indeed the world. She had the idea but no tangible resources with which to bring it into being. This may have stopped a less hardy soul, but the Reverend Colemon trusted in God; she also fel confident about her own ability to understand and unlock the potential of Christ’s power.
Colemon announced plans to build a large center with an auditorium to hold up to 4,000 worshippers comfortably. At first she was only able to raise $1.5 million, well short of the money necessary to realize her dream, but an anonymous donor came forward and offered her about 50 acres of prime land on the south side of Chicago. Based on the strength of her faith, she knew that God was bringing about the completion of the goal she had set for herself. She proved in action what she had always believed through faith. “God supplies my every need … anything I need when I need it, and all I need do is name it,” she told Dollars & Sense. It did not take long for UFBL to find the remaining money, a whopping $3.5 million, to complete the new Christ Universal Complex--the largest religious facility in Chicago--which opened in August of 1985.
It was none other than the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a minister from the comparatively conservative Baptist tradition, who was on hand to help Colemon launch the new Complex when she held her first service that August day. Then-governor of Illinois Jim Edgar even set aside the day on which her church opened as “Christ Universal Complex Day.” Colemon did not grow complacent in the face of her success, however. She called her complex, “God’s city in the making,” Dollars & Sense reported, a description that implicitly looks forward to sustained achievement. Beyond just offering religious services in the complex, she has also set up the Johnnie Colemon Institute to train other ministers to go out and spread the word of “practical Christianity” and abundant living.
Coleman’s late husband, the Reverend Don Nedd, wrote a small creed for the organization entitled,” What We Believe.” Beyond stating that it is God’s will that everyone should be happy and prosperous, a statement which Colemon and her followers use very inclusively, the creed announces that the power to be happy and prosperous lies within each individual. Nedd added that Jesus Christ is the soul who has most perfectly shown the way to unleash these forces in our lives. UFBL’s adherents also believe that love is the basis of all “right thinking” and that the individual seeking personal “self-unfoldment” must learn to be guided by “the still small voice within” of which the prophet Isaiah spoke.
Colemon’s most controversial stances probably have to do with her position on the issues of heaven and hell and Christ’s crucifixion. She does not view heaven and hell as “places” you go or “experiences” the soul goes through after death. Instead, as she related inDollars & Sense,” you are in heaven when you have the things that make you happy…. When you do not… you are in hell. They’re both … where you are now, and you can be in either place; it’s up to you.” As disturbing as some people find her inversion of the usual ideas of heaven and hell, others find her emphasis on religion in this life and not the next extremely liberating.
Also upseting to many people is Colemon’s rejection of the Christian belief in Christ’s presence on the cross. She has explained that she is not denying that a crucifixion took place, but believes it was Jesus who was crucified. She elaborated in Dollars & Sense,” You can’t crucify Christ because Christ is God’s idea of himself. “She added,” Christ has always been, so they couldn’t crucify Christ, they crucified the human Jesus.” Again for all those who are disturbed by her new theology, there are others who feel liberated from guilt and bad feeling, from a belief that God wants them to remain poor and unhappy.
Often referred to as the “First Lady of Religion in America,” it is hard to put a limit on what Colemon will achieve as she continues to proclaim her gospel of success and prosperity. So far, her accomplishments, as well as the large crowds that have responded so positively to her preaching and teaching, have served as strong witnesses to the power of her message. Many are looking with great interest to see what the future holds for this talented and charismatic religious leader.
Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1985, Sec. 2, p.3.
Dollars & Sense, December 1985-January 1986, pp. 12-25.
Essence, May 1995, p. 146.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the Universal Foundation for Better Living, Inc., December 1995.
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