The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples
Our God Is One | March 12, 2023 Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.”
The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men [people] often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication, they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires.
— Footprints of a Dream, Howard Thurman
The style of my message is different this week since we will be having our Annual Membership Meeting next Sunday. I thought it would be important to review who we are.
I was a student at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley concentrating in Urban-Black Studies at the Center for Urban Black Studies at the Graduate Theological Union when I first heard the name, Dr. Howard Thurman. Professor and Director of the Center, Dr. W. Hazaiah Williams suggested my doing an independent study of Dr. Howard Thurman. My first reaction was “Dr. Who?” He responded: “You don’t know who Dr. Thurman is?” I responded: “Why should I know who Dr. Thurman is?” He proceeded to tell me a bit about Dr. Thurman. Dr. Williams had been a seminarian at Boston University School of Theology during Dr. Thurman’s tenure there as Dean of Marsh Chapel, the first African American to serve in such capacity in any college, university, or theological school in the United States.
From his secretary, Ms. Lolita Rivas, I obtained the telephone number and address of The Howard Thurman Educational Trust in San Francisco. Upon arrival for my Saturday morning appointment, I was greeted at the door by an elderly Black gentleman who invited me to come inside. I walked right past him when suddenly a shroud of energy enveloped me. I turned and asked: “Are you, Dr. Thurman? He responded with a deep “yesss.”
While conversing, I inquired about the book I should read first to begin my understanding of him. Without hesitation, he stated The Growing Edge. The Growing Edge is a compilation of sermons along with meditations and prayers essential to the unique unfolding and centering of the self in the worship experience guided by Dr. Thurman. Worship was essential to Thurman and to understanding him. Dr. Thurman informed me that he would be preaching at The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples the next day.
I had already felt the presence of the Holy in our conversation and never entertained the notion of not hearing him preach. Once he began preaching, I found myself with head in hands throughout the rest of the service. Approaching him after the service, I offered my appreciation for the message. He responded: “Well, yes. I was wondering when you were going to come up for air.”
He saw me! Sitting in the last seat on the last pew in the sanctuary, I was seen, personally by him. How important is it for us to be seen, each one of us, including those participating by Zoom? That is why we recognize those who have joined us in worship through that platform to be understood as present, alive as a member of our Beloved Community. And just maybe he was aware of the layers of my life being pulled back and my soul being laid bare. Perhaps, he knew that in some way the Great Spirit, All-Pervading Presence was feeding the hunger of my heart even though I had not been aware of the hunger. I was being born anew with the socially imposed labels and barriers removed, retired. It was a return to the Garden of Eden, not to innocence, but to relationship, respect for all that has been created and responsibility for my own life and those to whom I am connected.
Essential to the worship experience for Thurman was and is for us this inward journey to authenticity of the self which seeds authenticity in community, to experienced intimacy with that which is more than we are. There is within each of us this struggle to answer what the All-Pervading Presence calls us to be and do. We try to create in worship a tone via meditation, prayer, silence, music, and the arts for the sound of the genuine to play in the lives of our worshippers.
In his book, The Creative Encounter, he speaks to the interfaith, interracial dimensions of worship.
“Man builds his little shelter, he raises his little wall, builds his little altar, worships his little God, organizes the resources of his little life to defend his little barrier, and he can’t do it! What we are committed to here (Fellowship Church), and what many other people in other places are committed to, is very simple – that it is possible to develop a religious fellowship that is creative in character and so convincing in quality that it inspires the mind to multiply experiences of unity – which experiences of unity become over and over and over again more compelling than the concepts, the ways of life, the seeds and the creeds that separate men. We believe that in the presence of God with His dream of order there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself.”
Fellowship Church continues to be a place of deep spiritual encounter and community with people of all faiths, genders, races, ethnicities, and nationalities. We pray that you feel honored and encouraged to share with people of various backgrounds in our worship and larger life. That is who we are. It is our legacy.
Near the end of their Pilgrim of Friendship to Burma, Ceylon, and India, where they had audiences with both Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, great Hindu poet, they spent a day in Kyber Pass where they looked into Afghanistan and spied a camel train taking goods, ideas, and new concepts to various places. The mystical vision of those precious moments caused them to embrace the demand to develop a religious practicum across all racial barriers, with a carryover into the common life, a fellowship that would alter the behavior patterns of those involved. “It became imperative now to find out if experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than the experiences which divide them.”
The mystical reality of the unity of life and humanity needed to find concrete expression in the life of the nation, the United States of America. The idea of a church embodying this reality was a passion that drove them to this venture, The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. Here we are!! I want to emphasize with a carryover into the common life, a fellowship that would alter the behavior patterns of those involved. Many people label Dr. Thurman as a mystic and therefore dismiss his involvement in community which was significant even outside his role with Fellowship Church. Numerous stories in Thurman’s With Head And Heart reveal how congregants at Fellowship Church confronted racism and other forms of injustice in their daily rounds. Experiences of unity with the ground of being in the mystic mount should also be experienced in the commonplace. And if there are barriers to this reality, they need to be confronted.
The creation of Fellowship Church was an extraordinarily powerful and creative contribution to civil rights. Remember it came into being during World War II. Churches were totally segregated. They were a critical and determined part of the problem. Churches supported slavery, segregation, and it’s still virulently alive offspring. Scholar Kyle Hazeldon (The Racial Problem in Christian Perspective) reported that segregation of the races had its beginning in the church quite as early as its emergence in secular society. H. Shelton Smith writes: In His Image. But . . . it is clear that church leaders, with rare exceptions, viewed Negro bondage as compatible with the Christian faith. Nor was this notion peculiar to the South or to any particular religious tradition.
Yes, these were critiques from centuries long gone. A more modern critique appears in Thurman’s The Luminous Darkness. Dr. Thurman speaks to the irresponsibility shown by churches in addressing the racial divide.
I do not wish to suggest that there are not many who are participating in the social struggle inspired to do so by deep religious convictions. But my insistence is that the church has lost the initiative to inspire such behavior in our society. The image of the church is so damaged that at the moment it does not provide an effective rallying point.
On the other hand, if Christians practiced brotherhood among Christians, this would be one limited step in the direction of a new order among men. Think of what this would mean. Wherever one Christian met or dealt with another Christian, there would be a socially redemptive encounter.
The services at Fellowship Church are meant to provide the inner strength to accomplish the outer action. They are spaces where activists, where all of us, are to be refreshed, restored, and find courage sufficient to return again and again to our personal struggles and the struggles for a world that reflects the search for common ground, the Beloved Community, the kin-dom of God, Maat, an Ubuntu world, the fellowship of all peoples.
Fellowship Church is a confrontation with the institution that upheld and sanctioned segregation. This is more than civil rights. So, if people challenge you with the question of what you are doing for civil rights, tell them that you are involved in Fellowship Church that embraces the rights and duties of being human. Tell them that you are implementing that Deuteronomic proclamation: “the Lord our God is one Lord.” Tell them that you are engaged in giving hints that the kin-dom of God is at hand.
The church provides a forum for the affirmation of human rights and responsibilities. It does this by energizing and implementing a vision of what church could and should be. Dr. Thurman led this evolution of a community of diverse people committed to the oneness of life amidst a divided, unjust society. Rather than continue to divide and oppress, the religious community could heal. You may not know it, but you are participating in a radical, religious/spiritual experiment that has proven that it works.