‘For the good of us all’: Maisie Sparks on how honoring diversity brings true growth
Monitor contributor Maisie Sparks wanted to explore the idea that an extreme view of independence was threatening to unravel the need for fostering a true sense of common good. She found a promising pushback in Fellowship church.
I’m so glad you get to hear from Maisie Sparks today – and even happier that I’ve gotten to edit her articles this year.
Her first piece for the Monitor was about finding justice and mercy in traffic court – and not only because she walked away without a fine. The interaction taught her something about humanity.
“Regardless of the past and no matter what our fears,” she wrote, “sometimes we touch the heart of another human being when we share our own.”
Maisie shared her heart again when she, a Black woman, let readers into the open conversation she had with two of her white neighbors about childhood experiences with race.
I can’t help thinking that behind Maisie’s willingness to open her heart – and get others to open theirs – lies a deeply rooted faith in the power of truth, of love, of our shared humanity. We zero in on that faith in today’s discussion of another of Maisie’s articles, “At Fellowship church, faith knows no creed or color.”
In this case, Fellowship church members touched Maisie’s heart (and mine) by sharing their faith.
Ashley Lisenby: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Ashley Lisenby, one of its producers. Each holiday season, editors and writers discuss some of the most meaningful stories of the year.
This year, staff will discuss stories that exemplify five main themes: faith, gratitude, love, hope, and joy. Today’s theme is faith.
Listen as Deputy Daily Editor Trudy Palmer and Monitor contributor Maisie Sparks discuss how the founders and congregants of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco show courage and faith in action.
Trudy Palmer: Hey, Maisie, I really enjoyed editing your piece on The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco and how members there worship together despite their ethnic and religious differences. That was a great piece. I enjoyed it. So Maisie, for those listening, can you tell us where your idea for this started?
Maisie Sparks: Sure. Back in June, right before the nation’s July 4th celebration, I had been pondering a thought about our nation moving from celebrating Independence Day to celebrating Inter-dependence Day, basically recognizing our need for each other. What I had been noticing was the American notion of independence was becoming so extreme that it was threatening to unravel the need for us to work together for the common good.
Palmer: Oh, that’s right, I forgot that you went in that direction.
Sparks: Initially I was hoping to find an example of intercultural cooperation and interdependence that wasn’t a religious institution. But as I thought about it more and more, I was learning that the places where we learn about God’s love should also be the places where we learn to love all of God’s people, where we learn to accept and respect and worship with each other. This was the church. This was a time when I was beginning to want to be more intentional about bridging racial, cultural, and religious divides. And a church really is a place for that to happen.
Palmer: Yeah, I remember you saying that in most places, Sunday at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour of the week. So it’s actually really impressive that you found your example in a church.
Sparks: Yes, I had known about Howard Thurman from readings earlier on with life, and hearing some of his sermons even ... online and his work and his life really impressed me and how he was so much behind a lot of what went on with the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. He wasn’t out front, but he was behind, supporting and encouraging and doing the kind of silent work that often needs to be done when big shifts are about to happen within the thinking of a nation.
Palmer: After learning more about Fellowship, what was the most compelling part of their story?
Sparks: When I interviewed the current pastor of the church, [the Rev. Dr. Dorsey] Blake, I was challenged in my understanding of diversity as it applied to a church. First, he didn’t have the same definition of church growth as I did. He seemed to define growth as the many different kinds of people he could get into his church and the number of people the church could love. And in my competitive way of thinking, I saw church growth as the number of people who show up. And of course, most of those who would show up would be all the same color. But he wasn’t focused on that. He was more focused on how many different people were in the pews, and it was more about how many people were being stretched in their imagination as far as what a church could be. The church honors a lot of diversity on all levels: diversity of race, thought, culture, even their religious beliefs can be different. So I remember at one point in the conversation I thought to myself, this church loves more people than I do. And that was not only a realization, but it was a conviction.
Palmer: I remember, like you, being challenged by how a group of people with extremely different views of God, how that constitutes a church. And you have people who are members of other denominations who are also members of this congregation. And I think what was hard for me in that is I think of church in a way as a common language. It’s a common language sort of built on the principles of my denomination and how those principles influence one’s view of the world. So there’s this kind of common baseline. And, you know, there are also texts that you can refer to within your denomination, and people will, generally speaking, you know, have a kind of common understanding of them. So I was trying to figure out how does that sense of common language work at Fellowship?
Sparks: I think what I experienced in talking to the people at Fellowship Church was that they have more words in their language. They use words and thoughts from Islam and Judaism and other world religions. They’ve decided that they’re going to embrace ideas and thoughts that treat everyone with dignity and respect and fairness wherever they find those words. They have a respect for truth that honors any culture and justice anywhere. They are not a part of a denomination, so I see that they have a lot more freedom and a lot more flexibility. But in their statement of faith, they do say that they are a Christian church.
Palmer: Hmm. So how are they defining Christianity?
Sparks: In my eyes, Fellowship Church makes a distinction between Christianity and what Howard Thurman, who was one of the church’s founders, called the religion of Jesus. The religion of Jesus is what they feel they are to pattern themselves after, which I think they would say is reaching out and extending themselves to anyone who wants to be part of the church. They are not necessarily trying to mold people into a particular set of beliefs, but getting people, you know, from different backgrounds to love as Jesus loved. I would say that they want people to get to know different people so that they don’t have to be afraid of the differences.
Palmer: Hmm. So what lesson can Fellowship’s story bring to those of us outside of their congregation? And more specifically, what did you learn about faith from your own reporting?
Sparks: There were two takeaways for me from working on this story. One was just remembering the adage where there is a will, there is a way. If we want to treat people with dignity, respect, and fairness, it can be done. The question is really, do we want to do that? And Fellowship has been intentional about wanting to do that. The other big takeaway for me was the word “faith” as both a noun and a verb. American Christianity puts a lot of emphasis on the noun, not so much on the actions that would back up our creeds and statements of belief. But working on this story helped me to see that faith can take on a much more active and intentional form when it comes to our racial and cultural differences - if we want that to happen. Trudy, I’d like to turn the tables now and ask you a question.
Sparks: I’m curious, how do you think this story models the Monitor’s perspective?
Palmer: Well, actually, I think it does in a number of ways. The Monitor is convinced that humanity is always present, so we’re always looking for it and wanting to share it. And it seemed clear to me that this is going to be an article that would shine a light on the humanity of the people involved. I mean, it would be a celebration of individuals seeing others’ value, despite – or frankly, even because – of their differences. And so the Monitor’s desire to understand others, it seems to me like that’s sort of Fellowship Church’s reason for being:To understand others. So that’s just a direct fit.
And I think another way that the article fits with the Monitor is that Fellowship is living out progress. I mean, certainly when they started, the desire to bring people together over a pretty impassable gulf, and their success in doing that, is a proof of progress. And interestingly, it’s not one that has stopped. I think when they started, it was probably primarily embracing people from different races and religions, which was, you know, revolutionary enough. But they’ve since expanded. My sense from talking with you is that they’re – LGBTQ people are now gladly embraced. And it’s kind of like Fellowship is saying – it’s not saying, “OK, OK, we were pretty embracing, but I think that’s enough progress. Let’s stop.” Instead, they are determined to just continue expanding their embrace, which is – which is impressive. And certainly, progress is a Monitor distinction, I’d say.
Finally, just real quick. I think it’s lovely when a Monitor story really provokes thought. And something this one did for me, I mean, it asks some tough questions. What does it mean to be a church? What does it mean to be Christian, to follow the religion of Jesus? And Fellowship, they just, with joy it seems to me, embrace those tough questions and wrestle with them fearlessly and lovingly. And that’s – that’s an impressive way to operate.
Sparks: I would totally agree with you. What I’ve seen is that being open to difficult conversations means that they won’t always be difficult conversations. We will become comfortable in those places where we thought we couldn’t be comfortable and with people that we thought we didn’t have anything in common. I think often fear keeps us stuck in beliefs and traditions and ways of doing things that aren’t even beneficial to our own selves, much less our society. And we could all benefit from adding more words to our religious and cultural languages so that we don’t have to be afraid of others. I know and I see and I truly believe that as our world continues to be more interrelated, it will become more important that we get to know people outside of our particular group. And so the challenge going forward is recognizing our common humanity. We need to find kinship with people who we previously considered were not our kind. And I think that Fellowship has given us at least one model, one way of doing that.
Palmer: Hmm. That reminds me of the last line you ended your article on. It was a quote from the pastor that you interviewed. He was talking about the genius of the founders of the Fellowship Church, and he says 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."
Sparks: Yes, they were stepping out. As Dr. Thurman again, one of the founders, said there was a new movement of the spirit of God in their hearts. And often when something new was being birthed, it’s going to rub up against what is already happening, the status quo. But there has to be someone who steps out, and we have seen that certainly throughout our history of this country and as well as the history of the world. Someone has to say, “It’s time to make a difference and to do things differently,” where more people are involved and there is more inclusion than exclusion. And so I think you’re right, it gives us hope. It gives us an idea of what can be done when we want to do it. It calls on us to use our imaginations and to become a church, not just in the world, but a church that is for the world. That we’re actually trying to bring people together in ways that we can work for the good of us all. Because there really is enough here on our planet for us to do good by each other.
Palmer: Hmm. I love that, Maisie. Thank you.
Lisenby: Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, share it with your friends. Or even better, give them the gift of Monitor journalism. Visit CSMonitor.com/Holiday for our discounted holiday offer.