Beyond Faiths and Race in Interfaith, Interracial Worship

This post is part of our forum on Howard Thurman and the Civil Rights Movement.

A sign in front of St. Pancras Church that reads “Church open for everyone,” September 13, 2021, London, UK. (Shutter stock)

The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men 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, 1959

Dr. Howard Thurman’s Footprints of a Dream is the story of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. The quote above refers to Fellowship Church and the spirit, vision, and stamina that gave it birth and still sustains it.

As a student at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley concentrating in Urban-Black Studies at the Center for Urban Black Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, I was unaware who Dr. Thurman was. Dr. W. Hazaiah William, professor and director of the Center, suggested that I undertake an independent study with Dr. Thurman. Dr. Williams had studied with Dr. Thurman at Boston University School of Theology.

Upon arrival for my Saturday morning appointment at The Howard Thurman Educational Trust, I was greeted at the door by an elderly Black gentleman who invited me 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 “Yeess.”

Dr. Thurman suggested that I begin my study with him by reading his book, The Growing Edge, a compilation of sermons along with meditations and prayers essential to the unique unfolding and centering of the self in the worship experience. Worship was essential to understanding the essence of Dr. Thurman. He also invited me to The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples where he would be preaching the next day.

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. And just maybe he was aware of the layers of my life being peeled away and my soul being laid bare. I was born anew with socially imposed labels and barriers retired.

Essential to the worship experience for Thurman was this inward journey to authenticity of the self which seeds authenticity in community. I experienced intimacy with that which is more than I am. Thurman-led worship creates the tone via meditation, prayer, silence, music, and the arts for the sound of the genuine to play upon and center the lives of the congregants.

His book, The Creative Encounter, speaks to the interfaith, interracial dimensions of worship.

It is my belief that in the Presence of God 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 before God . . . It is my simple faith that this is the kind of universe that sustains that kind of adventure.

Fellowship continues to be a place of deep spiritual encounter and community with people of all faiths, genders, races, ethnicities, and nationalities. We continue to honor and encourage people of various backgrounds to share in our worship and larger life.  That is who we are. It is our legacy.

Near the end of their “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to Burma, Ceylon, and India in 1935-36–where they had audiences with both Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, great Hindu poet—Dr. Thurman and Mrs. Sue Bailey Thurman, his soulmate, spent a day in Khyber Pass where they looked into Afghanistan and realized that it was a gateway or conduit for the movement of ideas and concepts to different parts of the world. This mystical vision of a religious practicum capable of cutting across all socially imposed barriers with a carryover into the common life, a fellowship that would alter the behavior patterns of those involved, anchored their lives. “It became imperative now to find out if experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than the experiences which divide them,” Thurman wrote.

The idea of a religious fellowship embodying this reality escorted them to this venture, The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. I want to reemphasize that they sought a fellowship that would alter the behavior patterns of those involved, and carry over into common life. Numerous stories in Thurman’s With Head And Heart reveal how Fellowship Church congregants redressed racism and other forms of injustice in their daily rounds based on what happened to them at church. 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 dismantled.

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 resolute part of the problem. Churches supported slavery, segregation, and their still virulently alive offspring. Scholar Kyle Hazelden reported in The Racial Problem in Christian Perspective, that segregation of the races had its beginning in the church just as early as its emergence in secular society. H. Shelton Smith writes in his book, In His Image, But . . .: Racism in Southern Religion 1780-1910, “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.”

Thurman’s The Luminous Darkness speaks to the failure of Christianity.

. . . 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 those involved in societal transformation are restored, renewed, and find courage sufficient to return again and again to the struggle 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 was a concerted assault against the institution that upheld and sanctioned segregation. The church provided a forum for the affirmation of human rights and responsibilities. It did this not by integrating into racist religious institutions but by energizing and implementing a vision of what church could and should be. It presented an alternative to the most dominating institution/system in the nation that sanctioned racial segregation as morally correct.

Fellowship Church consists of people from the Catholic Church tradition, numerous Protestant churches, Buddhist and Jewish backgrounds, Communists, and people who don’t believe in God. I have been asked, “What kind of Bible do you use? What holds such an odd mixture of people together? How do you preach in such a context?” My answer is that we are all committed to social justice and we love one another. That is what molds us together.

 From The Growing Edge; a poem.

All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of the child—life’s most dramatic answer to death—this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!

We are invited to become like a child who imagines a world of play and lives in that world with joy and ease while also living in the adjusted and compromised world we have created.

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Dorsey Blake

Dorsey Odell Blake has served as Presiding Minister of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (San Francisco) since 1994. Fellowship Church was founded in 1944, as the nation’s first intentionally interracial, interfaith congregation by Dr. Howard Thurman and Dr. Alfred Fisk. During Dr. Blake’s installation service, Mrs. Sue Bailey (Howard) Thurman presented Dr. Thurman’s robe — which had not been worn since his death – to Dr. Blake as a symbol of her trust in his leading the congregation “so that there will be no past greater than our future.” Dr. Blake also serves as a Faculty Associate at the Pacific School of Religion as well as a faculty member of the Proctor Institute, Children’s Defense Fund. Additionally, he is a member of the Advisory Board of Ethics in Tech and the coordinating committee for the National Council of Elders. Dr. Blake has extensive field ministry experience with interfaith groups addressing justice and peace issues, including California People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, The Interfaith Alliance for Prison Reform, Genesis, The San Francisco Interfaith Council, and Religious Witness with Homeless People.

Comments on “Beyond Faiths and Race in Interfaith, Interracial Worship

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    Thank you for this treasure… keep on, keeping on… we had a wonderful lunch one afternoon in Long Beach, California a way ways back…. Our mutual friend Dr. Kate Caston introduced us and I was forever changed… Holding a sweet vision of what’s possible..

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