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Howard Thurman visits Gandhi and creates an Interracial Church

(Books, History, Nonfiction) Permanent link

Most people don't know Howard Thurman (I didn't). You could say he was the John the Baptist to Martin Luther King Jr., the grandfather of African American nonviolence, a Gandhian, Christian, mystic, poet, and preacher.

Howard Thurman's childhood memories: burying his father because nobody else would (whites-only undertaker in their town); listening to the funeral sermon, which "preached my father into hell" because he wasn't officially Baptist. Thus we have the two things Howard Thurman fought against his whole life: Segregation and institutions.

But far more powerful memories sustained him: "The woods befriended me" and gave [me] "a sense of belonging...the ocean and the night gave me a sense of timelessness...death would be a minor thing." Of all the evils swirling around him, he would take solice in the storm and the God of the storm.

Like Tolystoy he became a Christian mystic, making a large distinction between "the religion of Jesus," which "offers me very many ways out of the world's disorders"--and Christianity. He felt God directly in nature, much like Emerson's "Original Experience"; a Chrisitian beyond Christianity: "the things that are true in any religious experience are to be found in that religious experience precisely because they are true; they are not true simply because they are found in that religious experience...this is not to say that all religions are one and the same, but it is to say that the essence of religious experience is unique, comprehensible, and not delimiting." This permeated his relationships: "That afternoon I had the most primary, naked fusing of total religious experience with another human being of which I have ever been capable."

A pivitol point in his life is when the president of his college called them "young gentleman": "What this term of respect meant to our faltering egos can only be understood against the backdrop of the South of the 1920's...the black man was never referred to as 'mister,' nor even by his the end of his days, he had to absorb the indignity of being called 'boy,' or 'nigger,' or 'uncle'." He was an amazingly disciplined intellectual:

the library was my refuge and my joy…at last the world of books was mine for the asking. I spent hours each week wandering around in the stacks, taking down first one book, then another, examining the title, reading the foreword and the table of contents, leafing through the pages, reading a paragraph here and there, getting the feel of the book and familiarizing myself with writers across centuries who would in time become as closely related to me as my personal friends…I kept certain books in the bathroom. Others I read only during the ten-minute intervals between classes…I would hasten to the next classroom, take my seat, and read until the lecture started.

He advocated for African American rights but, like his friend Martin Luther King Jr., he did so in a wholistic and strategic way: "Thurman would speak about race before white audiences, but on his own terms, and in his own way." He said: "This is always the problem of reformation: To put all of one's emphasis upon one particular thing and when that thing is achieved and the Kingdom of God has not come, then the reformer sits in the twilight of his idols."

After visiting Gandhi, Thurman really got to thinking about how to fix the problem of segregation and race problems in America. As a minister, he thought: how in the world can we tell the government to integrate white and black if our own religion is the most segregated institution in the country? It was embarrassing and wrong. Therefore, he helped create and became the minister of a truly interracial, multiculural church in San Franscisco. This was the legacy of Howard Thurman. Obviously his struggle continues.

Martin Luther King Jr. would listen to him preach in Boston: “He always listened carefully when Thurman was speaking, and would shake his head in amazement at Thurman’s deep wisdom” (192). Don't forget to supplement this book with Howard Thurman's autobiography With Head and Heart.


Visions of a Better World


Posted by Matt Smith at 08/16/2012 12:13:53 PM