At Fellowship church, faith knows no creed or color

In the 1940s, it was anything but acceptable to have people of diverse races shoulder to shoulder in America’s church pews. But that didn’t sit right with Alfred Fisk, a Presbyterian clergyman, and Howard Thurman, the dean of the chapel at Howard University. Working with others, they formed The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in 1944 to see if spiritual unity and fellowship could trump the prejudices upholding the nation’s racial divide.

It did, and it still is.

Why We Wrote This

Seeking to transcend the barriers that divide people, the founders of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples sought to honor individuals’ shared humanity. So far, the experiment is working.

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

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

Fellowship church identifies itself as Christian, but since it is independent, the church can depart from denominational norms, including a single “right” set of beliefs. Members focus instead on having right behaviors toward all people. And they are welcome to belong to churches of other denominations as well. 

For Fellowship church, in place of creed, denomination, or even a shared understanding of God is unity – with one another and with God.

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

“When I look out into the congregation, I see Black folks and white folks … Latinx folks … folks of various Asian heritages … Jewish folks, and Buddhist,” says the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, Fellowship church’s presiding pastor for the past 27 years. “Who’s in the pews – or over the past year, who’s checking in online – is just accepted and celebrated.”

But when Alfred Fisk, a Presbyterian clergyman, and Howard Thurman, the dean of the chapel at Howard University, started this experiment in the 1940s, it was anything but acceptable to have people of diverse races shoulder to shoulder in America’s church pews. Baptists had split in 1845 over the issue of slavery, and another break would come in 1880 when Black congregants formed the National Baptist Convention to gain a voice and the dignity that comes 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 Fellowship of All Peoples sought to honor individuals’ shared humanity. So far, the experiment is working.

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

Following that calling, the two men joined with leaders from Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Congregational faiths – and with individuals from white, Black, Asian, and Jewish heritages – to see if spiritual unity and fellowship could trump the prejudices upholding the nation’s racial divide. 

How is this “Christian experiment in democracy” holding up today? It depends on how you define a community of faith – whether you prioritize a diverse community or a particular belief. 

“Often people think of community as joining together like-minded people, but I think it’s just the opposite here,” says the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton, co-pastor of Fellowship church. “We don’t have a herd mentality; we have a shared humanity. We honor the sacredness of the personality and the need for community. The word that comes to mind for me when thinking about our church is acceptance.”

Independence grounded in inclusivity

Sunday mornings under Fellowship church’s distinctive bell tower include typical aspects of Protestant faith gatherings such as music and preaching. But the music might be an African drummer instead of a choir, and a Muslim imam may call the congregation to worship rather than a minister. Liturgical dance is not out of place in a morning service, neither are extended periods of silent meditation. After the Sunday service, members carry on a long-standing tradition of gathering for a meal and talking for hours because there is a lot to learn about each other. 

Since it is independent, Fellowship church has the freedom to depart from denominational norms, including a single “right” set of beliefs. Members focus instead on having right behaviors toward people of every race and creed. 

“People here grew up in various denominations and traditions,” says Dr. Benton, who is white and has been a member since 2000. At Fellowship church, they needn’t give those up in order to belong. “Most don’t come from a tradition with this much flexibility,” she adds.

“I was allowed into the circle,” says Jojo Gabuya, a Filipino whose roots were in Catholicism. Jojo Gabuya, who has been part of Fellowship church since 2017, is also a member of the United Church of Christ. Since its earliest days, Fellowship church has pioneered dual and long-distance memberships to honor spiritual heritages and allow those outside the area to participate.

“Fellowship church looks for what we have in common,” says Jojo Gabuya, who works for Wesley Foundation Merced, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church of Merced. “It’s a boundary crosser. … You can go outside the fence and make relationships with people who don’t belong to your religious interest.”

Fellowship with all

Fellowship church has an impressive legacy among religious icons. Dr. Thurman’s mentoring of civil rights leaders strengthened the spiritual foundation of Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, among others. 

People talk about Dr. Thurman not being involved in the civil rights movement, but that’s not true,” says Dr. Blake, who is Black. “The church’s existence was a statement for civil rights and challenged society’s racial and religious norms.” 

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 offer spiritual refreshment and perspective to those who are,” says Dr. Blake.

While multiracial congregations are no longer an anomaly, embracing diverse racial and religious affiliations and beliefs in the sanctuary is not the experience of most American churchgoers. For Fellowship church, that is its mainstay and the reason many traditional denominations question whether it falls inside their definition of a Christian church.

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

Few traditional Christian denominations would express their faith in the way Fellowship church does with words like these from Dr. Thurman: “Experiences of unity between people are more compelling than all the prejudices that divide 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 Fellowship church, that includes undermining and destroying the barriers of creed, 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,” says Dr. Blake, “was that they moved forward because they could imagine church not as an end in itself, but as a pathway to helping us all to recognize our connection to the Divine and with each other.”

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