On my way to worship at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples on Sunday, July 6, Rev. Dr. Kathryn L. Benton, Co-Minister and Rev. Dr. Dorsey O. Blake greeted me.
Ingathering of Community
Expressing a Sense of Awe
Dr. Dorsey Blake opened the service with the opening lines from “A Garden Beyond Paradise” by Rumi:
Everything you see has its roots
in the unseen world.
The forms may change,
yet the essence remains the same.
Every wondrous sight will vanish,
every sweet word will fade.
But do not be disheartened,
The Source they come from is eternal—
growing, branching out,
giving new life and new joy.
Why do you weep?—
That Source is within you,
and this whole world
is springing up from it.
Music. The congregation sang “Énter, Rejoice, and Come In.” The lyrics included “Open your ears to the song,” “Open your hearts everyone,” and “Don’t be afraid of some change.” Then Dr. Blake coached the congregation to sing the first and fourth verses again, which led to a much livelier rendition!
Invoking the Presence. Dr. Benton read the following poem by Hildegard of Bingen:
giving life to all life,
moving all creatures,
root of all things,
washing them clean,
wiping out their mistakes,
healing their wounds,
you are our true life,
awakening the heart
from its ancient sleep.
Practicing the Presence
Meditation. Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey reflected on the Fourth of July by riffing on the double meaning of the second syllable of the word “freedom,” which can be heard as “dumb.” He said, “I want to find a way of feeling free without feeling dumb. I would like free from dumb.” He then reflected on how we only have certain degrees of freedom. “There’s something called gravity that keeps me on the ground…. I really don’t want complete freedom…. These constraints, our inter-dependence, are what gives us free-from-dumb rather than free-and-dumb…. We are the founding fathers and founding mothers who have to make this idea of freedom come about…. May I wish you free-from-dumb and interdependence every day from now on. Blessings.
Music. The congregation sang “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” which includes the following lyrics:
Though like the wanderer,
The sun gone down,
Darkness be over me,
My rest a stone,
Yet in my dreams,
I’d be nearer, my God, to thee.
Prayer. Dr. Benton opened the prayer with an excerpt from “Be Melting Snow” by Rumi:
Lo, I am with you always means when you look for God,
God is in the look of your eyes,
in the thought of looking, nearer to you than your self,
or things that have happened to you
There’s no need to go outside.
Nearer to Thee, Great Spirit of this moment, of this place. We welcome your presence into the quietness of this place as we prepare for that moment of prayer. We center ourselves by breathing deeply the breath of life, bringing our heart to that breath. [Silence.] We find ourselves at the altar of the soul within and we pray. We long to be nearer to Thee in our thoughts as we strive to solve the challenges of our days. May we keep you near that we may not only think of ourselves but of all of your creatures, the insects, the birds, the reptiles, the other mammals. May we think also of the plants, the flowers, the trees, the grasses. And may we think also of the elements, water, earth, fire, air. May we remember the whole creation in our thoughts. We long to be nearer to Thee in our feelings, as we strive to love and not hate, as we turn our anger to a passion for all life. May we find on that altar of the soul your deep love for us. As we feel this love may we remember those who are suffering, those whose lives are nearer to us: [six names] and others we name here [silence]. And finally Great Spirit of this moment we long to be nearer to Thee in our actions bringing into our consideration the welfare of all creation, our fellow human beings, those that are homeless, those that are incarcerated, those living in poverty, those living in violence. We bring into our consideration the welfare of the animals, the plants, and the entire Earth. With each act, may we consider the consequences for all life. Nearer to Thee, O God, nearer to Thee than ourselves. There is no need to go outside. Amen.
Resting in the Presence
Music Meditation. Alexander Major
The Word. Dr. Dorsey Blake also reflected on the Fourth of July. First, he began by quoting from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Then he offered this prayer, “Let the words of my mouth that proceed from the meditations of my heart find favor in the heart of the universe and in the heart of those gathered in this place today. Amen.”
Recalling how his grandmother had challenged the notion of “Independence Day” by declaring, “I don’t know why you young black people celebrate Independence Day,” Dr. Blake said, “That prompted me to think about what does it really mean, this Declaration of Independence?” He went on to reflect on how the colonists were revolting against abuses. After trying to resolve them, they were breaking away to form their own government and affirming wonderful ideals. But as Dr. King pointed out, no matter how noble those ideals, how can you pursue happiness if you don’t have a job?
Dr. Blake then quoted from a speech that Frederick Douglass gave on July 4, 1852.
Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?…
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
Go search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
Many years later Dr. Thurman would say things very similar when he said the United States would end up being the most hated nation on Earth. Dr. Blake also reflected on Thurgood Marshall’s comment on the bicentennial of the Constitution when he said we should celebrate those who have continued to push for change to enhance human rights.
Today, in this country, even religions are oppressive. As Douglass said, “If you are going to have a slave master, don’t have a Christian one.”
Paul said you should always obey the law of the government. But when Jesus was asked the same question, he gave a different answer. In the midst of a popular revolt against “taxation without representation,” someone asked Jesus if he should pay taxes. Jesus replied by referring to the Roman coin, which had an image of Caesar on one side and an image of the High Priest on the other, and replied, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jesus refused to sell out those who were revolting by telling people they should pay those oppressive taxes. That challenge was also reflected in his Prayer which affirmed the Kingdom of God on Earth. He refused to sanction loyalty to Rome. He was therefore seen as a threat for good reason.
Yet, Frederick Douglass still had hope. “If he had hope, how can I not have hope?” The Declaration states that when humanity is faced with a long train of abuse, “It is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” How many abuses have we experienced? Clearly we must act. “I am suggesting we not listen to Paul. He was wrong.” We need to proclaim “a new era. We are called to bring a new kind of community into being.”
Offering Our Gifts
Announcments. Bryan Caston.
Music. “Love Will Guide Us.” Love will guide us, peace has tried us, hope inside us will lead the way on the road from greed to giving. Love will guide us through the hard night. If you cannot sing like angels, if you cannot speak before thousands, you can give from deep within you. You can change the world with your love.
Blessing. Dr. Dorsey Blake.
Postlude. Alexander Major.
After the service, the ministers greeted the parishioners, including Belva Davis, a local TV news anchor, long time Fellowship Church attender, and former associate of Dr. Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman.
And I asked a parishioner if I could photograph the drawings she made during the service.
Then I photographed the books on display for sale downstairs.
Pressed for time, I only stayed briefly for the Social Hour, but I left with my spirit uplifted by a wonderful worship. Then at home, I noticed the following poem by Steven Biko on the back of Sunday’s program:
We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap
warranting endless competition among us
but as a deliberate act of God
to make us a community of brothers and sisters
jointly involved in the quest for a composite answer
to the varied problems of life.
NOTE: If you want a digital audio tape of this service, let me know and I can send it to you via wetransfer.com.