The main floor and the balcony of Unity of Washington church center was filled with people who paid as much as $125 to see best-selling author and humanitarian Michael Bernard Beckwith.
His appearance at the Northwest sanctuary coincided with Unity’s 91st anniversary. Beckwith’s message crosses religious boundaries, promotes self awareness and employs meditation and breathing techniques.
Beckwith is the founder and spiritual director of Agape International Spiritual Center, which has 9,000 members in Southern California. He is not officially affiliated with Unity, but both ascribe to the New Thought movement that embraces the principles of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other many other world religions.
“What the world needs now is real lovers of God and lovers of humanity, not people who are caught up in the smallness of their particular dogma,” said Beckwith, author of the best selling book “The Secret.” “Religion is not just going to church every Sunday and being good until you die and go to a place called Heaven.”
Beckwith spoke at the request of the Rev. Sylvia E. Sumter, the senior minister of Unity of Washington. She has led the 1,200 member congregation for 20 years.
“We call ourselves New Thought. What we teach has been around for a long time,” Sumter said. “You take the universal teachings and spirituality and use them where your life becomes a living testimony and you are transformed from within.”
Unity has been in the District for 90 years. Three years ago, the church outgrew its home on Capitol Hill and purchased the old Metropolitan Baptist Church sanctuary on R street NW. Then, as now, the congregation is overwhelmingly African American.
“If people are looking for hope, if they are looking for a way to be successful, to live graceful, positive, progressive lives, this is the place,” Sumter said. “We come with a spirit that embraces everyone. There is only one God and there is only one truth,” Sumter said. “There are many ways to explain it, many ways to express it, but there is only one.”
Alton Pollard, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity, said the growth of the New Thought movement mirrors societal changes.
“The Unity movement, in many ways, is part of the same expression that the country as a whole, and African Americans in particular, are going through,” Pollard said. “Many people are trying to make sense of what it means to live a world where social institutions, as we know them, are no longer holding sway.”
“We tend to forget that 250 years ago we didn’t have black churches and 500 years ago we didn’t have Protestant churches,” Pollard said. “Institutions can’t hold the spirit and people tend to forget that.”
Beckwith, born in 1956, is the great grandson of a Baptist preacher from the District.
As a child, Beckwith moved to California after his father took a job in Los Angeles. As a teenager he was agnostic, according to his latest book ”Spiritual Liberation.” Then in the 1970s he enrolled at the University of Southern California majoring in psychobiology.
During college years, Beckwith said he sold marijuana and became a major dealer. “What started as a modest cottage industry ended up with distribution in D.C., Atlanta, Nashville and Los Angeles,” he wrote in his latest book. A series of dreams, he wrote, led him to study Eastern and Western religions. “I found out that when you strip away the culture, history and dogma of every religion, the teachers of those religions were teaching very similar principles.”
In 1985, Beckwith was ordained in the Religious Science Movement. In January 2009, he appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Larry King Live.” His ministry exploded and now includes followers around the world. Some have accused him of being a false prophet and a megalomaniac.
But Beckwith said his message was inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, whom he met at age 11. “I used to hear his talks about Agape love.” Agape is unconditional love.
“When I was called to do this kind of work, the name of my community had to be called Agape,” Beckwith said in an interview. “Agape is a transdenominational spiritual community that cuts across all denominations because the power and presence of God is too big to fit into a denomination.”
Courtney Lang has been part of the Unity movement since she was a teenager. There are about 200 Unity churches across the country.
“I grew up Catholic,” she said. “I went to a Unity church in Cleveland and then when I went to school at Pepperdine, I started going to Agape in Los Angeles. The New Thought movement has grown with people who have gone from a traditional church experience to an interfaith Christian experience that is holistic.”