On January 20, 2019, Rev. Dr. Dorsey O. Blake, PSR’s Faculty Associate for Leadership and Social Transformation, presented the robes of Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman and Rev. Dr. Alfred Fisk—co-founding ministers of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples—the first first intentionally multiracial congregation in the United States—to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. Thurman’s robes were presented to Blake during his installation as presiding minister of the church in October 1994 by Thurman’s wife Mrs. Sue Bailey Thurman. The robes, unworn since Thurman’s passing, were presented to 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 graciously provided his remarks from the event.
In 1944, even in liberal San Francisco, the city of St. Francis, and all across this nation, churches were racially segregated. Drs. Alfred Fisk and Howard Thurman along with other visionaries sought to transform this reality by forming a church that encouraged and celebrated the coming together of people of diverse racial, national, gender, class, and creedal backgrounds. The idea was that if such an assemblage participated in profound religious experiences over a significant time duration, there would emerge among them a sense of common ground, of unity, that would subvert all of the socially imposed barriers of separation. Dr. Howard Thurman said about this: “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men [people] often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.” The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, became the nation’s first avowedly, interracial, interfaith church. This was such an unheard of gathering that the church was investigated as a communist organization. Surely, Christians would not trespass established norms, mores, and patterns of segregated worship and living held sacred by the nation.
A few years ago, we received an email from Dr. Joanne Hyppolite of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture inquiring whether we at Fellowship Church possessed photos of Dr. Howard Thurman that we might donate to the museum. I realized that in addition to photos, the robes of co-founding ministers, Dr. Thurman and Dr. Fisk, were housed here also. I informed our board of trustees of my decision to donate Dr. Thurman’s robe to the museum. And, it voted unanimously and enthusiastically to donate Dr. Fisk’s robe.
Dr. Fisk’s robe was given to the church by his widow, Mrs. Eleanor Fisk. Dr. Thurman’s robe was given to me by Mrs. Sue Bailey (Howard) Thurman during my installation service as Presiding Minister. As she and Dr. Daniel Collins placed Dr. Thurman robe on me, she uttered these words: “And, this robe has not been worn since Howard’s death.” This was 1994. Dr. Thurman died in 1981. “ The robe began to cling to me, grasping my body. His essence seemed to be there still. I felt being held and called anew to profound, prophetic ministry, to unshakable belief in the common ground of all peoples. I could not speak! Words just wouldn’t come. Twice I tried unsuccessfully. Tears welled up inside me and many of those congregated. In the nearly 25 years since, only one other person has worn it. And, that is our Co-Minister, Dr. Kathryn Benton. For, we are in this ministry together.
The robe has been a faithful and significant companion. It has been here to ground me, steady me, remind me of my high resolve and the needs of the people for a far different and better way of being together. The robes and photos now go the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. That is where they belong, in a place that is and shall continue to attract millions of people who may find in this exhibit, the strength, courage, wisdom, energy, audacity, imagination to live with such high resolve that as a global family, nation, local community, and as individual persons (in the words of Mrs. Thurman) “there shall be no past greater than our future.” And, I add, borderless future.
Hear now these words from Dr. Thurman as Dr. Eric Williams, curator of religion, symbolically accepts these precious gifts. “Let us now go forth to save the land of our birth from the plague that first drove us into the “will to quarantine’ and to separate ourselves behind self-imposed walls. For this is why we were born: “People, all people, belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.
And all the people said Amen.