Seventy years ago, John Laurence was walking down 16th Street in Washington, D.C. when he saw a brown-skinned man in a black coat and hat, with his hair tucked down into his collar. John thought — “That’s Swami Yogananda!”
A “chance” meeting
John had heard of Yogananda through Amelita Galli-Curci, a disciple of Yogananda and well-known opera singer. John knew that Yogananda had a center in Washington, D.C., so John didn’t approach Yogananda on the street but went to the center and waited until Yogananda came in. John introduced himself and asked Yogananda for his autograph. Yogananda wrote:
With unceasing blessings. There is no East nor West nor North nor South, but pervaded by my one Father whose children we all races are. —Swami Yogananda. November 2, 1933.
The framed autograph hangs in John’s tiny studio apartment in San Diego along with a photo of Yogananda. Recalling his first meeting with Yogananda, John said: “He wrote this standing up. He had his cane on his arm and he wrote this whole message. I still have the little book that I paid 35 cents for.”
An ecumenical path
Shortly before meeting Yogananda, John had left a Franciscan monastery without taking final vows in order to support his mother after his father’s untimely death. Inspired and forever changed by his first meeting with Yogananda, John became a disciple of Yogananda and a life-long student of his teachings.
Not long after meeting Yogananda, John moved to San Francisco and met Kamala Silva, Yogananda’s personal secretary. With Yogananda’s blessings, John assisted Kamala during the 1930s, ’40s, and early ’50s as she laid the groundwork for a thriving Yogananda center in San Francisco’s East Bay.
Yogananda also encouraged John’s predisposition towards a non-denominational, ecumenical path—independent of organized religion. John later founded his own church in San Francisco, the “Metaphysical Design for Living Church,” which he dedicated to Yogananda.
Unknown to John, in 1951 Kamala attended one of his lectures in San Francisco during which he discussed Yogananda’s life and major work, Autobiography of a Yogi. Kamala wrote down what John said and shared her notes with Yogananda when she next saw him in Los Angeles. Kamala told John, “tears came to Yogananda’s eyes and he went right over to his desk and tore a big sheet of paper and wrote a letter.” Yogananda’s letter to John reads:
Dear Mr. Laurence — dear me,
I so rejoiced to read your soulful review of my “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Sounds like you usher others back to God, through the example of your good life.
Words are futile to describe how I feel towards you and your divine activities.
Keep on becoming daily a bigger beacon of Divine Light through the practice of SRF teachings in daily life.
With all of my love and blessings for all you are doing, ever yours, very sincerely,
Yogananda’s gratitude and compassion
In January, 1952, two months before Yogananda’s passing, John wrote a poem and enclosed it in the birthday card he sent to Yogananda. Yogananda was so pleased with the poem that he asked that it be read aloud at his birthday banquet. Yogananda later wrote John, telling him how deeply touched he was by the poem.
John’s enthusiasm for his guru led him on one occasion to behave somewhat insensitively. After one of Yogananda’s public lectures in San Francisco, John went back stage, grabbed hold of Yogananda’s hand, and gave him so forceful a handshake that Yogananda winced. Nearly everyone else greeted Yogananda with a pronam, an Indian form of greeting done with folded palms and without physical contact.
Years later, while sitting in the San Diego church where Yogananda had often lectured, John recalled that inappropriate “handshake” and began to weep. John said he then looked down at his hands and could hardly believe his eyes: “I saw Yogananda’s hand in mine! Right there. He had been gone from this earth for I don’t know how many years! He was saying, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry.’”
An ongoing ministry
A lot has happened in John’s life since that first meeting with Yogananda 70 years ago. John has led a colorful life as an opera singer, radio personality, lecturer, minister, counselor and teacher.
I first met John about ten years ago when he was living in San Francisco. Mutual friends of ours were being married at the Marina Yoga and Health Center, which I then owned. John officiated at the wedding, using the ceremony written by Swami Kriyananda. I stood next to him and turned pages as he read. John was a youthful 85 at the time.
Soon after, I began attending the Wednesday evening healing prayer services that John co-led at Trinity Episcopal Church. John used Yogananda’s healing prayer techniques and inspired us with stories of miracles by Yogananda and other saints. The sign “Expect a Miracle” was always on the altar.
John never accepted money for these sessions and refused to take credit for the healing miracles that occurred. He never let us forget that “God was the healer.”
At the end of the healing prayer sessions John would bless each of us by placing his index finger on our spiritual eye. Whenever I received his blessing, I felt a powerful transmission of spiritual energy. The more time I spent with John, the more I felt my attunement to Yogananda deepening. Because of his humility and devotion, John was a powerful channel for Yogananda.
John’s idea of retirement is not typical. He continues to counsel and inspire people through healing prayers, phone conversations and during visits. At age 95, despite some health concerns, John remains amazingly robust, intellectually sharp, and witty. His daily practice of Kriya Yoga, his devotion to God and guru, and his ongoing service to others keeps his magnetism strong.
John looks forward to his 70th anniversary of his first meeting with Yogananda in November of 2003 like a child anticipating a birthday. John always speaks of his beloved guru with deep devotion, saying: “He was a great soul. We will not see his like again.”
A longtime Yogananda disciple, Nicole DeAvilla-Whiting lives in Marin County, CA with her husband and two children. She teaches Ananda Yoga in Marin and at The Expanding Light guest retreat at Ananda Village.