It was an academic/activist friend of mine, William Apel, who introduced me to Howard Thurman. I’m not much of a contemplative. I’m more the activist, always on the go, engaged in the issues. Bill Apel was one of a small circle of friends who showed me the value of contemplation and mediation, specifically pointing me to this mystic rooted in reality who was a spiritual guide for Martin Luther King, Jr. Through his book, Witnesses Before Dawn: Exploring the Meaning of Christian Life,Bill introduced me to Howard Thurman and led me to the deep springs of the spirit he shared.
Howard Thurman (1900-1981)
Howard Thurman was an author, philosopher, theologian, pastor, educator and civil rights leader. The grandson of a slave, he graduated from Morehouse College as valedictorian in 1923. Shortly thereafter he was ordained as a Baptist minister, but his studies with the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones introduced him to a broader range of spirituality. Thurman became the Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University.
While leading a student “Pilgrimage of Friendship” trip to India, Thurman and his wife, the former Sue Bailey, had a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi that gave focus to a growing passion in his ministry. He envisioned an interracial church in the days when most blacks were excluded from white churches. When Thurman asked, “What is the greatest enemy that Jesus Christ has in India?” Gandhi responded, “Christianity.” Thurman resolved to remain within his Christian tradition but work at overcoming the divisive influences within race and religion that split so much of society.
By 1944, Thurman had joined with a small interracial circle of friends, initially Quakers and Episcopalians, to found a neighborhood church in San Francisco called The Church for the Fellowship of All People, the first intentionally interfaith congregation in the United States. Thurman was chosen as founding co-pastor along with Dr. Alfred Fisk. They sought to preach truths that would be embraced by all people of faith and offer expressions of spirituality from many global cultures and religions. Jews, Buddhists and Hindus joined in the church as well as people who were alienated from all organized religion. Thurman’s basic theme was, “We are one at any level.”
Speaking of his work in promoting inter-religious fellowship, Thurman said:
“Man builds his little shelter, he raises his little wall, builds his little altar, worships his little God, organized the resources of his little life to defend his little barrier, and he can’t do it! What we are committed to here, and what many other people in other places are committed to, is very simple – that it is possible to develop a religious fellowship that is creative in character and so convincing in quality that it inspires the mind to multiply experiences of unity – which experiences of unity become over and over and over again more compelling than the concepts, the ways of life, the seeds and the creeds that separate men. We believe that in the presence of God with His dream of order 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.”
In 1954 Thurman left to become the first black Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He was an active voice in the civil rights movement, exerting a major influence on the spirituality of the young Martin Luther King, Jr. Following his death in 1981, Howard Thurman’s writings continue to speak about spirituality and justice, influencing the vision and work of new generations.
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This profile was originally published in Dan’s book, Interfaith Heroes.