This semester, I’m teaching a class at the Divinity School called “Deep River: Howard Thurman, Spirituality, and the Prophetic Life.” It’s one of my favorite classes to teach because while it engages my mind, it also nourishes my heart. I believe Howard Thurman’s wisdom will lead anyone to that “inward sea” that overflows into an “outward sanctuary.”
Thurman was a mystic, a prophet, a pastor and a professor. An ordained Baptist minister, he was named one of the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States in 1953 by Life magazine. Ebony magazine called him one of the 50 most important figures in African-American history. He advised civil rights leaders from Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Farmer to Pauli Murray and served as dean of the chapels at Howard and Boston Universities. As one on the cutting edge of crossing boundaries, he even cofounded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, California, an intentionally interracial congregation in the 1940s. He blazed trails for future generations on so many levels.
His trail even led to Duke. In 1979, Thurman came to Duke Chapel to speak; you can find his sermons in the Duke Chapel Recordings Digital Collection. In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of scholarship on his life, work and thought. Last summer, there was an essay collection published, Anchored in the Current, and in the Fall, a religious biography called Howard Thurman and the Disinherited came out. Most recently, a biography Against the Hounds of Hell was published. PBS has even broadcast a documentary about Thurman called “Backs Against the Wall.”
There are so many ways to learn about Thurman these days—from books, documentaries, or other online archives such as the one at Boston University. One way that you can learn about Thurman and his relevance for today is through the Chapel’s Duke Chapel Reads initiative. We will be reading Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited together as a community during this semester with a culminating conversation with Thurman scholar and Emory professor, Walter Fluker, on April 6.
I say all of this to invite you to explore the thought and life of Howard Thurman. Growing up during segregation, the reclamation of his humanity, his Black humanity, was critical. But he never denied anyone of their humanity. This was foundational for him and deeply rooted in Black Christianity. As his grandmother, a former slave, told him, the key message of slave preachers to the enslaved was in short: “You are not slaves. You are God’s children.”
This child of God loved the ocean, oak trees and penguins. He was known to have a huge smile and a belly-shaking laugh. He had access to dignitaries and known educators such as Mary McLeod Bethune whom he eulogized when she died. He traveled the world, even meeting Gandhi, but he always had his feet on the ground as a human being. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, in his memoriam for him, he said that we are “not quite human yet” but “becoming human.”
That theological message–“becoming human”–was the source for his life’s work as he strove toward the formation of a beloved human community. This is why he centers his attention on the human Jesus and “those whose backs are against a wall” in Jesus and the Disinherited. He believed no one should be denied their humanity and all people are children of God. Every person, even the oppressor, even an enemy, is a human being created in the image of God.
Rather than seek revenge, Thurman calls us to revere. Revere one another. Honor the image of God in one another. Being in each other’s presence should bring forth reverence, not repulsion. This approach would reshape our politics and ethics as a human community and revolutionize our values. This humble approach would lead us to honor the presence of the other and the presence of the divine within each and every other.
On the second day of my Thurman class this semester, after watching the PBS documentary about him, we discussed the film as well as his autobiography, With Head and Heart. One student made an insightful observation as we reflected on all of the people that spoke in the documentary and the people Thurman names in his autobiography who touched his life and influenced him in some way. This student said that in the film there were the ‘big name’ civil rights leaders talking about him because he was a pastor to them, but in Thurman’s book, he didn’t just mention the people of notoriety. Thurman talked about ‘regular’ common folks, everyday people in his life, who made an impact on him—his grandmother, his mother, a teacher and more.
In fact, Thurman dedicated With Head and Heart “to the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago.” Thurman dedicates this book about his life to a stranger! This stranger, this unknown individual, impacts his life so much that he testifies that he ‘restored my broken dream.’ This stranger saw a young person, a young Thurman, in need, and did what he believed was right—help a stranger. Little did this stranger know that he would restore Thurman’s broken dream. And by dedicating his autobiography to the stranger who helped him years prior, Thurman reveres him.
It’s a reminder to never forget what one little gesture of reverence can do to someone’s life forever. It’s a reminder to never forget those who have revere you and how their reverence for you changed you or gave you some hope to carry on in the weary world.
In these times of great loss and death all around due to a pandemic or just due to the normal course of life, I encourage you to revere others as you remember those who carry broken dreams with them everywhere they go, because a small act of reverence may be all that is needed to restore a broken dream.
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Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is the Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.