Devotion at the Center
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
As Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) observed, one of the most segregated hours in the United States still occurs on Sunday mornings when we attend church services.  Yet as early as the 1940s, African-American writer and mystic Howard Thurman (1899–1981) was seeking to build a worshipping community across racial differences. In 1944, along with his white co-pastor Alfred Fisk (1905–1959), Thurman co-founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the country’s first interracial, interfaith congregation. Reverend Thurman describes how the collective experience of God became the center of the community’s life, unifying people from many different backgrounds and cultural expressions.
Fellowship Church was a unique idea, fresh, untried. There were no precedents and no traditions to aid in structuring the present or gauging the future. Yet [my wife] 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.
Moving out from this center of spiritual discovery many fresh avenues of involvement emerged. Art forms provided a natural expression. . . . And around all of these and other activities, 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 [their] own way like Jacob’s ladder from earth to heaven.
Our worship became increasingly a celebration before God of life lived during the week; the daily life and the period of worship were one . . . rhythm. Increasing numbers of people who were engaged in the common life of the city of San Francisco found in the church restoration, inspiration, and courage for their work on behalf of social change in the community. The worship experience became a watering hole for this widely diverse and often disparate group of members and visitors from many walks of life.
It was not long before I realized that what I had learned and experienced as to the meaning of love had to be communicated as a witness to the God in me and in our personal conduct as a witnessing congregation.
What had I learned about love? One of the central things was that the experience of being understood by another was of primary importance. Somewhere deep within was a “place” beyond all faults and virtues that had to be confirmed before I could run the risk of opening my life up to another. To find ultimate security in an ultimate vulnerability, this is to be loved.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Communism’s Challenge to Christianity,” Sermon (August 9, 1953). See The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vol. VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948–March 1963 (University of California Press: 2007), 149. To read more on this topic, see Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Sunday Is Still the Most Segregated Day of the Week,” America (January 16, 2015), https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/sunday-still-most-segregated-day-week
Adapted from Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1979), 144, 145–146, 148.