In 1936, Howard Thurman, then the Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and already a well-established writer and educator, led a delegation of African Americans to Asia as part of an international “friendship” initiative. There he met Mohandas Gandhi, a pivotal encounter in his life which broadened his theological and social vision. Gandhi gave Thurman an important challenge: Could the message of nonviolence, as both political strategy and as spiritual lifestyle, become part of the struggle for freedom for African Americans? “It may be through the Negroes,” Gandhi told Thurman, “that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”
Several years later, Thurman wrote his ground-breaking work Jesus and the Disinherited, in which he explored the gospels as speaking directly to the oppression of Black Americans. This book had a tremendous influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other key figures in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Thurman became a kind of spiritual guide for the movement.
In 1944, Thurman took another ground-breaking step by establishing the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, an intercultural, interracial, and interfaith organization dedicated to “personal empowerment and social transformation through an ever deepening relationship with the Spirit of God in All Life.”
In addition to calling the church to stand with Jesus on the side of “the disinherited,” Thurman also called us to a contemplative spirit to ground our lives in love and justice: “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men and women often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires.”
Thurman’s powerful theological, spiritual, and social contributions are only superficially known in much of the Christian world today (particularly the progressive White Christian world). But in these dark times, when racism and bigotry are rising and the Christian faith is increasingly weaponized as a tool of nationalism, we need to hear the voice of Howard Thurman.
The Alternative Seminary and Mystic Soul Philadelphia are hosting a special event to explore the life and work of Howard Thurman and to tap into this wisdom and courage. “Howard Thurman: A Contemplative Guide for Our Times” will take place on Saturday, February 22, 9:30 – 11:30 am, at Project HOME, 1515 Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia. We will view the one-hour film Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story that documents Thurman’s life and legacy, and we will explore together his vision of contemplative spirituality as the foundation for engagement in movements for social change. A light breakfast will be served. A donation of $10 (or whatever you can afford) is requested to cover costs. To register or for more information, contact Will O’Brien at 215-842-1790 or [email protected].
Mystic Soul Philly is a community of individuals committed to creating local spaces that center the voices and experiences of queer people of color at the intersections of faith, mysticism, activism and healing.
The Alternative Seminary is a program of biblical and theological study and reflection designed to foster an authentic biblical witness in the modern world. For more information, see www.alternativeseminary.net.