Daryl Grisby: Howard Thurman’s message for today
In honor of Black History Month, and, in light of the public television (PBS) special this month on “The Black Church,“ it is appropriate to recognize one of the towering figures in religious life in America: Howard Thurman.
While his name may be little known today, in 1953, before school desegregation, before black voting rights, during the Korean War and Cold War, Howard Thurman was highlighted in Life magazine as one of the 12 most important religious leaders in the nation.
Among his many accomplishments were serving as board member of Fellowship of Reconciliation, dean of Howard University Rankin Chapel, founder of Church of Fellowship of All Peoples, and dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.
As a mystic, writer, preacher, pastor, chaplain, pastor, pacifist and teacher, Howard Thurman had a profound impact on religious life in America.
Thurman was author of the 1949 classic, “Jesus and the Disinherited.” The book’s four chapters — “Fear,” “Deception,” “Hate” and “Love” — outline the areas where Jesus points the way for those who seek justice in this life.
Significantly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., carried “Jesus and the Disinherited” in his briefcase on all his travels.
In a life-transforming act, Howard Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, were part of a 1935 YMCA trip to India. Foremost on Thurman’s agenda was to visit and learn from the non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi. Thurman returned to America and combined Gandhi’s “soul force” of direct nonviolent action with his belief in the embracing presence of God.
Thurman’s most significant teaching is that all human divisions, barriers, walls, and distinctions melt away before the mystery of God. In 1944, he put that teaching in practice by founding The Church of the Fellowship of All People’s in San Francisco. That bold experiment— a radical departure from the racially divided church in America — gathered different races, nationalities, languages and perspectives within a common worship of God.
His 1954 book, “Creative Encounter,” notes, “It is my belief that in the presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.”
He says if we are open to God’s presence, we experience “increasing moments of inclusiveness.” Thurman acknowledges that this lofty vision is seen “dimly” now in the churning and confusion and chaos of our times. He confirms, however, that through deep faith and hard work, that vision can become a common human experience.
Imagine if the words of Howard Thurman were practiced by American Christians today? Unity above division, love over indifference, listening over yelling, justice over injustice, peace over discord, reconciliation over violence. If we could live the vision of Howard Thurman, the image of Christianity in America would be markedly different from what we see around us.
In 1976, during American Bicentennial, Howard Thurman spoke at the University of Redlands in California. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal had shaken the nation’s foundation. Thurman observed in his lecture that America had lost its soul.
His answer to that challenge was not a focus on individual rights and individual freedoms. Thurman instead focused on the Christian concepts of moral freedom and spiritual equality.
What did he mean by those terms? Thurman told us then, and repeats to us today, that believers need not worry about their “freedom to worship” but rather focus on the freedom God gives us to live a moral life.
The freedom to worship is not whether churches are allowed to physically gather in the midst of a pandemic. Rather, we have a moral freedom from God, and in our liberty we are to practice justice, show mercy, love without condition, and reflect light in darkness.
Thurman also called us to “spiritual equality.” By that he meant we recognize and live our common equality with all humans under the unifying presence of God. With Thurman, there are not saints and sinners, good and bad, them and us. Rather, each human person is as valuable, unique and loved by God as any other. None better, none worse, all equal within God’s good creation.
For Thurman, the ideas of moral freedom and spiritual equality were not lofty abstractions. They were a way of life, a daily practice, and a message as pertinent in 2021 as it was in 1976.
Our celebration of Black History Month would do well to study, learn from, and emulate the work and life of Howard Thurman.
Daryl Grigsby lives in Nevada City.
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