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Center for Action and Contemplation
We Are One and Many
We Are One and Many

The Experience of God Unites Us

Friday, February 11, 2022

CAC teacher Barbara Holmes recounts her visit to Fellowship Church, a visionary, multi-racial church co-founded in 1944 by Howard Thurman and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman. This faith community is a lived example of how diversity can be honored and held together by a shared experience of God:

On Russian Hill in San Francisco, in the midst of a densely populated neighborhood, is the building that was the site of . . . the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (or Fellowship Church). There, the mystic and contemplative Howard Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey, began an interfaith worship experience. In the fall of 2002, I journeyed to this place. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. . . .

Here, contemplative practices are given priority. Time is devoted to a guided meditation, which is an element of congregational life that is unusual in black worship. But then, this is not black worship—this is just worship. . . .

It was odd and wonderful at the end of the service to watch the embraces and connections across chasms of race, gender, and social devastation. In my pew, an elderly African American gentleman extended a hand to an Anglo male sitting in the seat next to me. No matter what the older man did, the younger man would not shake his hand. Instead of turning away to end the embarrassing situation, the older gentleman kept asking, “Why not?” with his hand insistently extended. “I can’t,” the younger mumbled nervously . . . “I can’t because my hand sweats too much.” The older man patted him on the back and began to walk away, but thought better of it and returned to embrace the young man. How wonderful, I thought. When had I been in a predominantly Anglo or black congregation where the people were so different that this kind of thing could occur? [1]

Howard Thurman (1900­–1981) writes about the conviction that shared worship and encounter with divine presence could unite diverse people:

Sue and I knew that all our accumulated experiences of the past had given us two crucial gifts for this undertaking: a profound conviction that meaningful and creative experiences between peoples can be more compelling than all the ideas, concepts, faiths, fears, ideologies, and prejudices that divide them; and absolute faith that if such experiences can be multiplied and sustained over a time interval of sufficient duration any barrier that separates one person from another can be undermined and eliminated. We were sure that the ground of such meaningful experiences could be provided by the widest possible associations around common interest and common concerns. . . . One basic discovery was constantly surfacing—meaningful experiences of unity among peoples were more compelling than all that divided and separated. The sense of Presence was being manifest which in time would bring one to his or her own altar stairs leading each in his [or her] own way like Jacob’s ladder from earth to heaven. [2]

[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017) 86, 87, 88.

[2] Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 148.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Barbara Holmes, Untitled 24 (detail), 2021, photograph, United States, used with permission. Warren K. Leffler, View of the huge crowd, 1963 (detail), photograph, public domain. Warren K. Leffler, Demonstrators sit, 1963 (detail), photograph, public domain. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2021, triptych art, United States.

The creative team at CAC sent a single-use camera to core teacher Dr. Barbara Holmes as part of an exploration into contemplative photography. Her photos are featured here together with historical images in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Humanity is One although we are as diverse as flowers in a field. There is power in many different individuals coming together for one purpose—the March on Washington reminds us that together we have the capacity to be a transformative body and force for change.

Story from Our Community:

Here I sit, in the highest foothills of the Rockies. I’ve eaten my breakfast, read my devotions, and it’s time for my 15 minutes of meditation. It’s so hard to keep my eyes closed while God is before me in every bird and blade of grass. I see God in every living thing until I go up the hill where I’m spraying away thistle. I’ve always had trouble with the challenge of appreciating ‘oneness’ when I come to something, someone, or some idea I don’t like.
—Joyce S.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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