Church unity trumps racial and denominational differences

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In the 1940s, it was anything but acceptable to have people of various races standing side by side in the pews of America. But that was wrong with Alfred Fisk, a Presbyterian clergyman, and Howard Thurman, the dean of the Howard University chapel. Working with others, they formed the Church for the Community of All Peoples in 1944 to see if spiritual unity and community could overcome the prejudices supporting the racial division of the nation.

He did, and he still is.

Why we wrote this

Seeking to transcend the barriers that divide people, the founders of the Church for the Community of All Peoples sought to honor the shared humanity of individuals. For now, the experiment is working.

“We don’t have a herd mentality; we have a shared humanity, ”says Reverend Kathryn Benton, co-pastor of the Fellowship Church.

Sunday services usually include familiar aspects of Protestant religious gatherings such as music and preaching. But the music can be an African drummer, and a Muslim imam can call the congregation to worship.

The community church identifies itself as Christian, but because it is independent, the church may deviate from denominational norms, including a single set of “righteous” beliefs. Rather, members focus on adopting good behavior towards everyone. And they are also invited to belong to churches of other denominations.

For the fellowship church, instead of creed, denomination, or even a shared understanding of God, it is oneness – with one another and with God.

For many in America, Sunday at 11 a.m. is the most segregated time of the week. But this has never been the case in the Church for the community of all peoples in San Francisco. For the past 77 years, this sacred hour has been an interracial, interfaith, and intercultural experience designed to foster faithful community and find ways to affirm that all people are children of God. Indeed, racial and religious openness were the very reasons for its founding.

“When I look around the congregation, I see Blacks and Whites… Latinxes… People of various Asian heritages… Jews and Buddhists,” says Reverend Dorsey Blake of the Fellowship Church . pastor president for 27 years. “Who’s on the benches – or in the past year, who registers online – is just accepted and celebrated. “

But when Alfred Fisk, a Presbyterian clergyman, and Howard Thurman, the dean of the Howard University chapel, began this experiment in the 1940s, it was anything but acceptable to have people of various races side by side in American pews. Baptists were divided in 1845 on the issue of slavery, and another rupture is said to have taken place in 1880 when black worshipers formed the National Baptist Convention to obtain a voice and the dignity that goes with it. And Baptists weren’t the only ones forming and reforming along racial lines. In the 1920s, the Pentecostal movement, originally formed as an integrated community in Los Angeles, succumbed to the forces of a segregated society and has remained so.

Why we wrote this

Seeking to transcend the barriers that divide people, the founders of the Church for the Community of All Peoples sought to honor the shared humanity of individuals. For now, the experiment is working.

But during the inaugural service of the Fellowship Church in October 1944, Drs. Fisk and Thurman imagined a different reality. “The movement of the Spirit of God through people’s hearts often calls them to act against the spirit of their time or makes them anticipate a spirit that is still in the making,” Dr. Thurman wrote in “Footprints” of a Dream, ”which chronicles the founding of the church.

Following that call, the two joined with leaders of the Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, and Congregationalist faiths – and people of white, black, Asian and Jewish descent – to see if spiritual unity and communion could prevail over the prejudices that support the racial division of the nation.

How does this “Christian experience of democracy” unfold today? It depends on how you define a faith community – whether you prioritize a diverse community or a particular belief.

“A lot of times people think the community is like like-minded people, but I think it’s quite the opposite here,” says Rev. Kathryn Benton, co-pastor of the Fellowship Church. “We don’t have a herd mentality; we have a shared humanity. We honor the sanctity of personality and the need for community. The word that comes to my mind when I think of our church is acceptance. “

Independence based on inclusiveness

Sunday mornings under the distinctive spire of the Fellowship Church include aspects typical of Protestant religious gatherings such as music and preaching. But the music can be that of an African drummer instead of a choir, and a Muslim imam can call the congregation to worship rather than a minister. Liturgical dance is not out of place in a morning service, nor are long periods of silent meditation. After the Sunday service, members carry on a long-standing tradition of meeting for a meal and talking for hours on end, as there is a lot to learn from one another.

Being independent, the Fellowship Church has the freedom to deviate from denominational norms, including a single set of “righteous” beliefs. Rather, members focus on the right behaviors towards people of all races and creeds.

“People here have grown up in various faiths and traditions,” says Dr. Benton, who is white and has been a member since 2000. At Fellowship Church, they don’t have to give them up to belong. “Most of them don’t come from a tradition with so much flexibility,” she adds.

“I was allowed to enter the circle,” says Jojo Gabuya, a Filipino whose roots were in Catholicism. Jojo Gabuya, who has been with the Fellowship since 2017, is also a member of the United Church of Christ. From its inception, the Fellowship Church has pioneered dual and remote memberships to honor spiritual legacies and enable those outside the region to participate.

“The community church is looking for what we have in common,” says Jojo Gabuya, who works for the Wesley Foundation Merced, which is affiliated with The Merced United Methodist Church. “He’s a cross-border. … You can step out of the fence and build relationships with people who are not of your religious interest.

fraternity with all

The community church has an impressive legacy among religious icons. Dr. Thurman’s mentorship to civil rights leaders strengthened the spiritual foundation of Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist pastor, among others.

People say Dr Thurman is not involved in the civil rights movement, but that’s not true, ”says Dr Blake, who is black. “The existence of the church was a declaration for civil rights and challenged the racial and religious norms of society.”

More recently, church leaders and members have participated in marches for prison reform and collaborated with organizations and individuals on issues of social and environmental justice and ethics in technology.

“We are not at every protest march, but we are offering spiritual refreshment and perspective to those who are,” says Dr. Blake.

While multiracial congregations are no longer an anomaly, embracing various racial and religious affiliations and beliefs in the sanctuary is not the experience of most American worshipers. For the Fellowship Church, this is its mainstay and the reason why many traditional denominations wonder if this fits their definition of a Christian church.

The church’s statement, with which members agree, places the Fellowship Church squarely in Christian tradition, yet “Dr. Thurman… made a distinction between Christianity and what he called the religion of Jesus, ”says Dr. Blake.

Few mainstream Christian denominations would express their faith like the Fellowship Church does with words like these from Dr. Thurman: “The experiences of oneness among people are more compelling than any prejudice that divides us.[,] and if we can multiply these experiences over a long enough period of time, we can undermine and destroy any barrier that separates us from each other.

For the Fellowship Church, this includes undermining and breaking down barriers of belief, denomination, or even the need for a shared understanding of God. In their place is unity – with one another and with God.

“The genius of Drs. Fisk and Thurman, ”explains Dr. Blake,“ is that they moved forward because they could imagine the church not as an end in itself, but as a way to help all of us recognize our connection to the Church. Divine and with each other.


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