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Lone Unity church seeks minister to answer the call

The Rev. Rob Wheeler presented his final lesson Aug. 26 at Christ Unity Church in Medford.

The title of the message: “Live Life Joyously — a Fond Farewell.”

The congregation held a celebration following Sunday’s morning service, thanking Wheeler for his 13-year tenure — the third longest for the church in the working class neighborhood near downtown Medford.

“He’s put a lot of time and effort into our little church,” said church member Jean Hanna.

Wheeler said the day-to-day-just-do-what-needs-to-be-done philosophy comes with accepting the call to full-time ministry.

“When I decided to make it my life, I had to say ‘OK, I can do it, I want to do it.’”

Although bidding a fond farewell is not easy, Wheeler said his stepping down as the church’s “administrator of the ministry” gives the congregation an opportunity to “stretch in their understanding” of the church’s teachings on “living healthy, prosperous and meaningful lives.”

“The most difficult part is recognizing that for me to grow and for this congregation to grow, I need to move on.

“Individually and collectively, they will find a new avenue to experience, express and celebrate the divinity within ... their divine potential.”

Colleen Graham, a longtime church member and a retired Unity minister herself, sang Wheeler’s praises.

A life-long devotee of Unity founder Charles Fillmore’s “practical Christianity,” Wheeler stayed true to Fillmore’s fundamental teaching of the principles of Jesus Christ, she said.

“He was good at that.”

And, all was delivered with his “wonderful” sense of humor, she added.

Graham served as pastor of the Medford church for three years in the late 1990s, after pioneering Unity of Ashland in the 1980s.

She has a vested interest in preserving Wheeler’s legacy and seeing the Medford church thrive despite his departure.

Although the Unity movement has grown worldwide, there are fewer Unity churches than there were in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.

“The local churches are on their own more now and some haven’t survived.”

While attendance may only be 30 to 40 on any given Sunday, Graham believes the Medford church will survive as the lone Unity church in the Rogue Valley.

“Unity is changing, not dying,” she said.

The Ashland church is on sabbatical this summer with plans to re-invent itself in the fall. As reported in the Ashland Tidings in June, the church’s direction is “Buddhist-shamanic” and may not be called Unity.

The Unity Church of Grants Pass has gone through a metamorphosis of its own. It’s now the Unity Open Heart Center. Without a pastor, Sunday messages and lessons are delivered by a series of speakers.

The Medford church has scheduled weekly speakers, too.

The Rev. Flo Bohnert, a minister for several decades in the Rogue Valley, kicked off the series Sunday.

In the meantime, the board of trustees has begun the hunt for a new pastor — or as the denomination refers to the role: spiritual teacher, counselor and life purpose coach. The search started with inquiries at Unity headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri.

In 2005, the Medford church didn’t have that far to go to find Wheeler. An ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, he had been a member of the local church since 2001.

Prior to coming to Medford, Wheeler spent 30 years in Reno, Nevada, where he worked in both law enforcement and the ministry.

The Unity Church was founded by Fillmore and his wife, Myrtle, in 1889 after Mrs. Fillmore had been cured of tuberculosis by what she believed to be “a spiritual healing.” The Fillmores were greatly influenced by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and later developed a system of precepts and practices based on the ministry of Jesus Christ.

A fourth-generation Unity student, Wheeler attended the same Unity church that his great-grandmother attended in Oakland, Calif. Lessons learned as a child attending Lakeside Unity Church on Fruit Valley Avenue became the roadmap for what on the surface appears to be a circuitous journey to the pulpit.

After graduating from Oakland Senior High School, he did a three-year tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and spent 10 years in law enforcement.

Wheeler said that one of his primary goals for the church was to have the building occupied and in use every day of the week.

“I am happy to report that’s been achieved,” he said.

The church is “a big supporter” of Alcoholics Anonymous and allows 10 different AA groups to meet there weekly. Other community outreach includes financial as well as in-kind donations to Gospel Rescue Mission, Coats for Kids, Committed Alliance to Strays (C.A.T.S.) and Dogs for Better Living (Dogs for Deaf).

“It’s in keeping with the law of giving and receiving,” he said.

On a last tour of the church, Wheeler pointed to news clippings and photos on the wall that tell the local church’s story.

Medford’s Unity Church was founded by the Rev. Katharine Bosworth in 1957after she bought the building that once served as a chapel for German-speaking congregants. The small wooden frame building, now the church’s main sanctuary, had been moved from Fourth and Oakdale to its present location at 540 N. Holly.

Bosworth served as pastor until 1973 — making hers the longest tenure in the church’s history.

Wheeler points to Bosworth’s regal antique credenza and chairs that still occupy a special place on the platform at the front of the church and the original many-times refinished wooden pews.

Graham, who calls Bosworth her mentor, added her own slice of history.

“Her rich educational and spiritual background made her lessons tasty,” she recalled.

Cushions, which still line the pews, were sewn by the women of the early church to make sitting for those lessons a little more comfortable.

But, it was the Rev. Marcus Buckley, she said, who put “Christ” in the church’s name a decade or so later.

“He wanted to let people know this was a Bible-based church,” she said.

Taking his own advice to “live life joyously,” Wheeler with his wife, Linda, will take to the road in a 35-foot motor home to visit children and grandchildren scattered across the Pacific Northwest, Arizona and Colorado.

Reflecting on life as a retiree, he said that for the first time in his adult life, “I will not have somewhere to be; I will just be somewhere.”

“If we have the notion to stop and see the world’s biggest ball of string, we’ll stop.”

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschRob Wheeler is retiring after 13 years as pastor of Christ Unity Church in Medford.