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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

October 18, 2020 | Message from Dr. Blake

Normally, Fellowship Church celebrates its Annual Howard Thurman Convocation on the third Sunday afternoon in October. Today is October 18, the third Sunday in October 2020. Due to COVID-19, health officials and the Mayor of San Francisco have prohibited our holding services in our wonderful sanctuary at 2041 Larkin Street, San Francisco. This is a necessary measure undertaken to arrest the spread of the coronavirus. While we are unable to host our Howard Thurman Convocation, we hope you will accept the following message in the spirit of the convocation. The convocation is held annually to remember the life and works of Dr. Howard Thurman and how that life and those works speak to and are evident in contemporary life.  Dr. Thurman held the Negro (African American) Spirituals in high regard. They were among his earliest and most faithful companions. They were grounding for him and a source of fortitude always. He remarked that these songs that emerged from the most awful conditions of slavery spoke to him in profound, tender, encompassing ways that affirmed his total being and connected him to life beyond the limitations of his segregated environment. Much of this affirmation of the very ground of his being resulted from what he experienced in the presence of his mother and especially his grandmother who had been enslaved and in whom these transforming songs lived. The songs created in him a sense of alternatives, of freedom, creating always for him a way forward even while his external environment sought to crush him. Dr. Thurman wrote two books that peered into the meaning of the Spirituals: Deep River and The Negro Spirituals Speak of Life and Death. These days, they are offered as one volume. The following are excerpts from Deep River with the exception of On Viewing the Coast of Africa for the First Time and the Epilogue which are from The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death. Please allow yourselves the luxury of leisure and let these words, music and the experiences from which they sprang speak to your head and heart.                                                                 *** My own life has been so deeply influenced by the genius of the Negro spirituals that their meaning as distilled into my experience in my early years spills over in much that I have come to think in my maturity. I believe, with my ancestors, that this is God’s world. This faith has had to fight against disillusionment, despair, and the vicissitudes of American history. Of such is the mood out of which these words came when I viewed the West Coast of Africa for the first time. From my cabin window I look out on the full moon, and the ghosts of my forefathers rise and fall with the undulating waves.  Across these same waters how many years ago they came!  What were the inchoate mutterings locked tight within the circle of their hearts?  In the deep, heavy darkness of the foul-smelling hold of the ship, where they could not see the sky, nor hear the night noises, nor feel the warm compassion of the tribe, they held their breath against the agony. How does the human spirit accommodate itself to desolation?  How did they?  What tools of the spirit were in their hands with which to cut a path through the wilderness of their despair?  If only Death of the body could come to deliver the soul from dying!  If some sacred taboo had been defiled and this extended terror was the consequence – there would be no panic in the paying.  If some creature of the vast and pulsing jungle had snatched the life away -- this would even in its wildest fear be floated by the familiarity of the daily hazard.  If Death had come being ushered into life by a terrible paroxysm of pain, all the assurance of the Way of the Tribe would have carried the spirit home on the wings of precious ceremony and holy ritual.  But this!  Nothing anywhere in all the myths, in all the stories, in all the ancient memory of the race had given hint of this tortuous convulsion.  There were no gods to hear, no magic spell of witch doctor to summon; even one’s companion in chains muttered his quivering misery in a tongue unknown and a sound unfamiliar. O my Fathers, what was it like to be stripped of all supports of life save the beating of the heart and the ebb and flow of fetid air in the lungs?  In a strange moment, when you suddenly caught your breath, did some intimation from the future give to your spirits a wink of promise?  In the darkness did you hear the silent feel of your children beating a melody of freedom to words which you would never know, in a land in which your bones would be warmed again in the depths of the cold earth in which you will sleep unknown, unrealized and alone?

The Blind Man

Since early morning the blind man had been waiting by the roadside. Word had come to his village the night before that the Healer would pass that way in the morning. The persistent hope for sight had never quite left him. True, he had been blind all his life, and yet, through all the corridors of his spirit, the simple trust persisted that he would some day gain his sight. At last, with his head slightly tilted the better to reassure himself of the quiet thud of walking feet, he knows. All his life he had waited for that precise moment. The slave singers did a strange thing with this story. They identified themselves completely with the blind man at every point but at the most crucial one. In the song, the blind man does not receive his sight. The song opens with the cry; it goes through many nuances of yearning, but always it ends with the same cry with which it began. The explanation for this is not far to seek; for the people who sang this song had not received their "sight." They had longed for freedom with all their passionate endeavors, but it had not come. This brings us face to face with a primary discovery of the human spirit. Very often the pain of life is not relieved – there is a cry of great desire, but the answer does not come – only the fading echo of one's lonely cry. There is complete exhaustion; but the will remains and becomes the rallying point for a new persistency that finally unlocks the door through which he moves to release and fulfillment. He goes on because he must go on. There is a bottomless resourcefulness in man that ultimately enables him to transform "the spear of frustration into a shaft of light." Under such a circumstance even one's deepest distress becomes so sanctified that a vast illumination points the way to the land one seeks. This is the God in man; because of it, man stands in immediate candidacy for the power to absorb all the pain of life without destroying his joy. He who has made that discovery knows at last that he can stand anything that can happen to him. "The Blind Man stood on the road and cried" – the answer came in the cry itself.

A Balm in Gilead

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole. The peculiar genius of the Negro slave is revealed here in much of its structural splendor. The setting is the Book of Jeremiah. The prophet had come to a "Dead Sea" place in his life. Not only is he discouraged over the external events in the life of Israel, but he is also spiritually depressed and tortured. As a wounded animal he cries out, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is no physician there?" It is not a question of fact that he is raising – it is not a question directed to any particular person for an answer. It is not a question addressed either to God or to Israel, but rather it is a question raised by Jeremiah's entire life. He is searching his own soul. He is stripped to the literal substance of himself and is turned back upon himself for an answer. He is saying, "There must be a balm in Gilead; it cannot be that there is no balm in Gilead." The relentless winnowing of his own bitter experience has laid bare his soul to the end that he is brought face to face with the very ground and core of his own faith. The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma, and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah's plaint into an exclamation point: "There is a balm in Gilead!" Here is a note of creative triumph. The contradictions of life are not in themselves either final or ultimate. This is the basic difference between pessimism and optimism. If the contradictions of life are not ultimate, then there is always the growing edge of hope in the midst of the most barren and most tragic circumstances. There is something present in the spirit of man, sometimes taking the form of great arrogance, sometimes quietly nourishing the springs of resistance to a great tyranny – there is something in the spirit of man that knows that the dualism, however apparently binding, runs out, exhausts itself, and leaves a core of assurance that the ultimate destiny of man is good. This becomes the raw material of all hope and is one of the taproots of religious faith for the human spirit. The day that this conviction leaves the spirit of man, his moment on the earth is over, and the last fond hope of the race perishes from the earth forever, and a lonely God languishes while before Him His dreams go silently to dust.

Deep River

The fascination of the flowing stream is a constant source of wonder and beauty to the sensitive mind. It was ever thus. The restless movement, the hurrying, ever-changing stream has always been the bearer of the longings and yearnings of humanity for a land beyond the horizon where dreams are fulfilled, and deepest desires satisfied. It is not to be wondered at that in this spiritual there is a happy blending of majestic rhythm and poignant yearning: Deep River, my home is over Jordan. This is perhaps the most universal in insight, and certainly the most intellectual of all the spirituals. In a bold stroke it thinks of life in terms of a river. The analogy is complete in the first place because a river has a very simple beginning. It increases in momentum in depth in breadth in turbulence as it cuts a broad deep channel across the continent. It is the nature of the river to flow; it is always moving, always in process, always on its way. Life is like that! Life on this planet began its long trek across the aeons in a simple single cell form in far-off ages in some primeval ocean bed. Your life and my life began as a simple form, moving through varying stages of prenatal fulfillment, until by a great climactic spasm you and I were born. Our life represents essential process. The analogy is complete again because a river has times of flood. Through melting snows and heavy rainfall, the channel sometimes becomes swollen. The river that once was full of peace and quiet balance, bearing on its bosom much to sustain and make glad the life of man, becomes a wild, unrestrained monster. It is the flood time of the river. Life is like that! There is a time of anguish, tragedy, a time of the swelling waters. The answer is a larger opening to the sea. The analogy completes itself. The river has a goal; and, the goal is the sea. It is from the sea that the river comes. It is to the sea that the river goes.  Life is like that! The goal of life is God! The source of life is God! Deep River, my home is over Jordan-- Deep River, I want to cross over into campground.

Jacob's Ladder

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Every round goes higher, higher. To listen to a group sing this song is to be caught up in the contagion of a vast rhythmic pulse beat. The measured rhythm communicates a sense of active belonging to the whole human race.  The individual becomes a part of a moving host of humanity. This is the great pilgrim spiritual. The setting is Biblical. Jacob was making his journey in search of a wife. He rested on the wayside when night fell. His head soothed by the coolness of the stone he made for a pillow. As he slept, he dreamed, and in his dream behold there was a ladder stretching from earth to heaven.  Moving up and down the ladder were angels, and at the top of the ladder was Jehovah.  Such is the story. Out of this picture the slave singer phrased his disturbing melody, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Every round goes higher, higher.” The song gathers in its sweep all the concentrated urgencies of human dreams and the insight here? It is the recognition of the gothic principle in human life, the two-dimensional character of reality as expressed in the great gothic cathedral. The pillars are grounded firmly in the earth and its awe-inspiring vault reaches toward the heavens into infinity, the time-bound and the timeless, the finite and the infinite, the particular and the universal. There is something in every one of us that tries ever to reach beyond the known, the realized, the given. Such is the gothic principle. At the top of the ladder there is the figure, face to face encounter with whom no one can escape. The searching question is how have you lived your life in the knowledge of your truth? We are all of us climbing Jacob’s ladder. Every round goes higher and higher.


And this is the miracle of the achievement of the slave singers causing them to take their place alongside the great creative religious thinkers of the human race. They made a worthless life, the life of chattel property, a mere thing, a body, worth living! They yielded with abiding enthusiasm to a view of life which included all the events of their experience without exhausting themselves in those experiences. To them this quality of life was insistent fact because of that which deep within them, they discovered of God, and his far-flung purposes. God was not through with them. And He was not, nor could He be exhausted by any single experience or any series of experiences. To know Him was to live a life worthy of the loftiest meaning of life. People in all ages and climes, slave or free, trained or untutored, who have sensed the same values, are their fellow-pilgrims who journey together with them in increasing self-realization in the quest for the city that hath foundations, whose Builder is God.

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