Jack Casford, RHN VP
Newsletter, Fall, 1997
Do you know how many churches there are on Russian Hill? Within our boundaries (Van Ness, Pacific, Taylor and Bay) there are only two: the Norwegian Seaman’s Church and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, popularly called Fellowship Church. Both churches are interesting historically and culturally. In this article we feature the Fellowship Church at 2041 Larkin Street near Broadway.
Fellowship Church is unique in the nation, recognized as the first intercultural, interracial, interfaith and interdenominational church organized in the country. From its formal inauguration on October 8, 1944, it brought together, for the first time, races and cultures pledged to each other in a common commitment. World War II was raging in Europe, with no end in sight. There was in the United States much talk about the Four Freedoms, religion being one of them, and a celebrated poster by Norman Rockwell portrayed several people of different races and ages and in various attitudes of worship – with rosaries, breviaries, Bibles, Torahs, veils, and so forth – indicating the various faiths worshipping together in an idealized world.
Fellowship Church’s origins lie in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, where an ordained Presbyterian clergyman and professor of philosophy at San Francisco State College (now University), Dr. Alfred Fisk, started a “Neighborhood Church” as a bi-racial institution. A group of about 40 persons, under the ministry of Dr. Fisk and the Rev. Manly Johnson, an African American (then “Negro”) student at the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School, began meeting in private homes in 1943. Later the Presbyterian Board of National Missions provided, rent-free, the use of a former Japanese Presbyterian Church, at 1500 Post.
At that time, the Fillmore sector of San Francisco had been largely emptied of its majority – Japanese-American citizens – by the infamous Relocation Order of 1942, which sent some 100,000 Japanese-American residents to holding centers. The vacuum left by these residents was filled by large numbers of African Americans, drawn from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, by promises of wartime employment in the Bay Area shipyards.
In 1944, Dr. Howard Thurman, Professor of Theology and the Dean of Rankin Chapel of Howard University, was invited to serve as pastor of the Church. Dr. and Mrs. Thurman had studied nonviolent resistance to institutionalized race discrimination with Mahatma Ghandi in India in the late 1930s.
Dr. Thurman and his wife moved from Washington, D.C. to take the pastorate. For a time the church held services in a former theater on Sutter Street. Dr. Thurman and Dr. Fisk wrote a formal set of guidelines and goals for the church, and the formal inaugural ceremonies were held in the First Unitarian Church, the only white church in the City that would lend its endorsement and its sanctuary for the event.
From 1944 to 1949, Fellowship Church met variously on Sutter, Pierce, and then Washington Street. Its membership included an active congregation locally, but it drew support from national “associates” such as Eleanor Roosevelt, author Alan Paton, actor-singer Todd Duncan, and individuals in Japan, South Africa, India, Iran, Formosa, and the British Isles.
In 1949, the congregation paid $35,000 to St. John’s Reformed and Evangelical Church at 2401 Larkin Street for its structure with church tower, sanctuary, meeting rooms, and offices.
In 1951, Fellowship Church had 283 active and 62 associate members in the Bay Area. From the first, it drew Russian Hill neighbors, but that membership is now small, albeit welcome.
Dr. Thurman was most active as pastor in the early 1950’s. In 1953, he was pictured in Life magazine as one of the outstanding clerics in the United States. He wrote over 130 works during his lifetime, primarily books on theology, including The Renewing of the Spirit and The Negro Spiritual. He spoke worldwide, and received formal tributes and commendation from many national and international religious, social, educational, and civil rights groups. Dr. Thurman contributed a considerable portion of his earnings from his U.S. lecture tours to the Fellowship Church building fund.
Dr. Thurman left in 1954 for a tenured position as Dean of Theology at Boston University, but returned to serve as Minister Emeritus until his death in 1981.
The widow of Dr. Thurman, Sue Bailey Thurman, herself an outstanding figure in African-American activities nationally, died at the age of 93 in December, 1996. Her funeral services were held at Fellowship Church, and the music came from the historic, German-made organ still in use for services.
The current presiding pastor is the Rev. Dorsey Blake. There are presently less than 100 members, many longtime, active supporters. The rather austere, off-white stucco façade is embellished with only an upper window, the church tower, and three street-level arched inset doors.
Neighbors are familiar with its use as a polling place for local, state, and national elections. Russian Hill Neighbors has held meetings at the church, as have other groups. During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was an active theater group who performed here. Performances included I’m Not Rappaport and An Evening with Martin and Langston with Danny Glover appearing as Langston Hughes.
On October 12,1997, the Howard Thurman Convocation was held at Fellowship Church, with a panel discussion called “The Luminous Darkness,” the name of one of Dr. Thurman’s many philosophical books. Bishop Chester Talton presided. On Sunday October 13, the Convocation presented “An Unfinished Future: Rekindling the Search for Common Ground,” with featured speaker Dr. Allan Boesak from South Africa, where he was active in the struggle against apartheid.