Johnnie Colemon, founder of Christ Universal Temple, dies
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
The Rev. Johnnie Colemon, influential founder and minister of Christ Universal Temple and a proponent of positive mental attitude, died Tuesday evening.
The former Chicago schoolteacher started the New Thought megachurch in 1956 and did not retire for half a century, presiding over its growth from a third floor at 6156 S. Cottage Grove to a multi-acre complex at 119th and Ashland, which includes two institutions of learning and a large banquet and meeting facility. She also founded the Universal Foundation for Better Living, an association of New Thought churches.
One of her favorite sayings was, “Never say you’ll TRY — you WILL!”
“You control your mind. It is the link between you and God. With love for yourself through love for God, you cannot fail,” she said.
She was taken Monday night to Mercy Hospital, where she died, associates said.
Rev. Colemon was committed to “teaching people how to live a healthy, happy and prosperous life through the principles taught by Jesus Christ,” she said in a 1996 Sun-Times interview. “Our philosophy is positive thinking.”
Her church drew politicians, seekers and celebrities. Former Gov. Jim Thompson spoke there. Mayor Harold Washington visited the church, which hosted his 1987 funeral. Actress Eartha Kitt and Michael Jordan’s mother, Deloris, attended services. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed there.
Rev. Colemon called her church “nondenominational. It includes all races, black, yellow, white, polka dot.”
“She helped so many people who went into the ministry and opened churches in other cities,” said the Rev. Helen Carry, her close friend and longtime second-in-command. “Les Brown was one of the people. He started out in motivational speaking and he became so interested that he studied under Johnnie and became ordained by her. [Entertainer] Ben Vereen was one of her close friends. He came to perform at the church, and he was so taken that he came back to study under her and became ordained by Johnnie. Actress Della Reese studied under her, was ordained by Johnnie, and went off and opened a church in L.A. She also helped and influenced [inspirational speaker] Iyanla Vanzant. Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan were among her closest friends. And her godsons included Chicago pastors Henry Harding and T.L. Barrett.”
“She changed my life,” said Midge Kimberly, publisher of the online magazine Champagne & Beyond. “Johnnie really started the mega-church movement. Hers was about the first one, and she had such opposition from male ministers here in Chicago. But [Nation of Islam] Minister Louis Farrakhan and [Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church] Pastor Clay Evans became some of her closest friends.”
“She is the reason why I’m still working at 73 years old, because she taught me that you can be as great as you want to as a woman, and age does not mean anything,” Kimberly said. “Her favorite quote was, ‘You can’t get caught up with what people think of you, because what people think of you is none of your business.’ ’’
“No one knew how old she was. She didn’t do age, and she would get in the pulpit and say to women, ‘Stop telling people your age,’ ’’ Kimberly said.
She wouldn’t reveal when she was born, explaining that people are souls — not bodies, Carry said.
But a representative at Leak & Sons Funeral Home says she was 94.
Rev. Colemon was born in Alabama, raised in Mississippi and graduated from Wiley College in Texas. She studied at Missouri’s Unity School of Christianity, where she was ordained. She wrote “Open Your Mind and Be Healed” after experiencing a cure from a terminal disease in 1953, she said in a 1996 Sun-Times interview.
She is survived by her husband, Leon Blair.
“I have no children other than my congregation, which is 4,000-plus,” she once said.
In 1987, Rev. Colemon was honored along with Coretta Scott King, widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. A decade later, a portion of 119th Street was renamed in her honor. Rev. Colemon also was a director of the Chicago Port Authority and a member of a Chicago Transit Authority oversight committee, according to the websitewww.thehistorymakers.com.
Until her retirement in 2006, she often handled the Sunday sermon at a service that drew nearly 4,000. “We start on time and get out on time,” she said. “Order is one of my keys.”
“Her church members and followers were drawn to her spiritual teachings that focused on healing, meditation and thinking positive thoughts to improve one’s life,” said Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown. “She was known for spreading the gospel of success and prosperity.”
After Rev. Colemon spoke to the Sun-Times in 1986 of positivity breeding prosperity, the paper reported that “Even the bathroom in her office speaks of success, and being proud of it. The clear-plastic toilet cover contained 10 new $1 bills in the lid with silver coins imbedded in the seat.”
“There are churches across the U.S. that have opened because of her, including Trinidad, Guyana, Canada, Jamaica,” Carry said. “What she did was work to have people change their thoughts, to know that whatever you want to be, you can be, that you don’t have to be dependent on others, you don’t have to ask people what to do, you can dance to your own music.”
Leak & Sons Funeral Home is handling arrangements.
Contributing: Becky Schlikerman