Howard Thurman is one of the most important religious figures of the 20th century who had an enormous impact in both spirituality and social activism. A grandson of slaves, he was a spiritual guide and visionary for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many of the leaders of the civil rights movement. A visit with Gandhi in India led to the conviction that nonviolence as a way of life could be a vital tool in the struggle for justice in the United States. A gifted preacher and prolific writer, his landmark book, Jesus and the Disinherited, was a ground-breaking exploration of the gospel as speaking directly to the oppression of Black Americans. But more than anything else, Thurman was a contemplative and mystic.
Sadly, Thurman’s powerful theological, spiritual, and social contributions have been greatly marginalized. He is only superficially known in much of the progressive White Christian world (a symptom of racism, one must assume). But he may be a spiritual guide for us precisely in these times, when many of us recognize that our struggle for justice, shalom – even for mere sanity – requires deeper spiritual mooring.
Thurman’s early critique of the commandeering of Christianity rings painfully true today: “It cannot be denied that too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed-this, despite the gospel.” He called us to grasp the reality of Jesus of Nazareth, who stood with “the disinherited.” He also called us to a contemplative spirit, in which we both come to know ourselves in our fullness and our vocation in the world: “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.”
The Alternative Seminary and Mystic Soul Philadelphia are hosting a special event to explore the life and work of Howard Thurman and to tap 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.