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The theologian I never knew I needed

Inspiration, introspection and finding joy after another difficult year.

While the world has indeed been slowly opening up again, 2021 was still another year of pandemic life. It was a tough one for me and for many, and I needed something to steal my focus. And so I decided to read and listen to theologian Howard Thurman through the year and into this New Year. I started with a classic I’d read before, Jesus and the Disinherited. I then moved on to an audiobook version of The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman and returned to paperback as I read Meditations of the Heart. I closed the year by reading The Inward Journey. It has been time well spent: easing the heaviness of the time while offering inspiration and its own worthy challenges.

The man, the mission, the movement

I was introduced to Howard Thurman while attending seminary at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. By the time I visited his works for the first time and listened deeply to contemplative reflections offered by professors like Dr. Luther Smith, Professor Emeritus of Church and Community at Emory, I felt that I’d missed the work of a legend. Actually, I knew I’d missed the work of a legend. How did I not know about Howard Thurman? Why hadn’t I read any of his work before? In all my years of sermons and lectures and conferences, why hadn’t Thurman’s words been quoted more prominently? But in spite of this introduction to Thurman and his work, another eight or so years passed before I began to fully appreciate not only his writings but his work in ministry.

I’ve heard Howard Thurman described as a minister, a scholar, a mystic, a man before his time, one of a kind, an author, a gifted teacher, and a sage. Through reading his writings and listening to some of his speeches, I’ve come to experience different aspects of each of these analogies. Born in Dayton, Florida, in 1899 and raised by his formerly enslaved grandmother, Thurman spent his career as an ordained minister and professor. During his lifetime, he spent time with Quaker Rufus Jones and later, Mahatma Gandhi. Thurman’s study, interactions with leaders such as Jones and Gandhi, and personal convictions about peace, justice, and reconciliation, led him to found the first multicultural church in the U.S. And while the founding of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco was revolutionary for Howard’s time, I believe such communities remain revolutionary and novel even for us today.

Joy Slips Away

During the ongoing protests and pandemic of last year, I found myself slipping farther and farther away from places of joy. In all of my volunteerism and advocacy and collective spaces for grief as well as processing, laughter seemed to be sucked from my life. I lost the essence of play. I no longer had daily or even weekly indulgences of simple pleasures. I needed an infusion of something more. I needed a pick-me-up.

This desire led me away from some of the traditional readings, sermons, and other activities I’d been engaging in and on a quest to get back to who and what I’ve known as “me.” This journey led me to Howard Thurman. While Thurman’s work may not typically be cited as joyful and definitely not as playful, it emanates with love. It is encased in grace. It exudes compassion. It is embedded with kindness. It fosters introspection. It cultivates community. Perhaps more than anything, and as I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into a joyless life, I needed Thurman’s work to remind me of all the ways we find peace, hope, and purpose in tough places. I wanted to be reminded of how he reimagined community when what was in front of him told him his dreams were not possible. I wanted to know the musings of his heart as he chose peace over strife, love over hate, faith over despair, and continued hope in spite of it all. So, I read Howard Thurman. I listened to Howard Thurman. I meditated on Howard Thurman’s words.

As current events continued to unfold, I leaned more into Thurman’s writings. The burden of current events was not exclusive to the U.S. I watched countries around the globe struggle with massive numbers of lives lost due to an inability to access vaccinations or enforce recommended public health measures of preventing the virus that were virtually impossible in some parts of the world. I viewed headline after headline highlighting the horrific discoveries of buried bodies at Canadian residential schools. I listened to news reports as parts of the Caribbean were devastated by not only natural disasters but political strife. Was this the way the world had always been or was I somehow more attuned to our collective grief and suffering? So, I read Howard Thurman. I listened to Howard Thurman. I meditated on Howard Thurman’s words.

Here’s What I Read:

1. Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the Disinherited is a work by Thurman I hear discussed more often than any other. The short read is divided into five chapters, including those titled Fear, Deception, Hate, and Love. In this body of work, Thurman reflects on the relationship between Jesus and those who are often marginalized, oppressed, overlooked, and undervalued. I wanted to start with this book because it was one of my first introductions to Thurman, but also because so very much of the events over the last two years left me questioning just how others saw – if they saw – the contradictions between loving Jesus, proclaiming to follow Christ, and caring for, as well as caring about, marginalized populations. I’ve read Jesus and the Disinherited at least three times. And each time I am brought back to considering how my faith is actualized in life; not by how I treat those I love and adore, but those who are different from me, think differently than me, and live their lives in ways that are not parallel to my life.

2. The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman

Listening to Thurman’s voice as he delivered sermons and speeches, as well as engaged in dialogue with others left me feeling as if I were traveling in a time capsule. His words: refreshing. His passion: evident. His convictions: unwavering. There are few scholars, theologians, and mystics who inspire such joy as I listen. And even fewer who possess the ability to share words that linger and truly move our hearts to change. Thurman is one such orator.

3. Meditations of the Heart

It took me a while to complete Meditations of the Heart but the work was no less profound. The short essays read like journal entries, intertwining Thurman’s personal experiences with life lesson nuggets so seemingly simple and yet challenging to integrate consistently into life. This body of work was my constant reminder to honour the seasons of my life and anticipate the unfolding of my dreams in ways beyond my imagination. In A Lull in the Rhythm of Doing, Thurman wrote, “There is no argument needed for the necessity of taking time out for being alone, for withdrawal, for being quiet without and still within. The sheer physical necessity is urgent because the body and the entire nervous system cry out for healing waters of silence.” In keeping with the theme of solitude, quiet, and introspection, Thurman wrote:

How good it is to center down! To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by. The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, while something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment and the resting lull … Over and over the questions beat in upon the waiting moment. As we listen, floating up through all the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind – a deeper note which only stillness of the heart makes clear. It moves directly to the core of our being. Our questions are answered, our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round.

– Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart

And finally, in In the Moment of Pause, the Vision of God, Thurman reflected, “It is good to make an end of movement, to come to a point of rest, a place of pause. There is some strange magic in activity, keeping at it, continuing to be involved in many things that excite the mind and keep the hours swiftly passing. But it is a deadly magic; one is not wise to trust it with too much confidence.”

With subtitles such as The Inward Sea, The Moment of Celebration, and Life is Alive, Thurman’s work in Meditations of the Heart slowly ushered me not only into contemplative silence but intentional reflection about how to celebrate life through various seasons of strife, uncertainty and uneasiness.

4. The Inward Journey

Ending the year with The Inward Journey could not have been more fitting. The short meditations I read on a daily basis reminded me of the inner work we must each engage in to grow spiritually, heal wholly, and serve faithfully. The Inward Journey reminded me to settle in a bit more, slow down, and dig deeper into my soul to seek a more intimate connection with God. The Inward Journey led me to create even more space to rest, more space to contemplate, more space to shed unnecessary baggage, and more space to welcome joy-fueled experiences, relationships, and interactions. The Inward Journey ushered me into the New Year with a lighter load, a bigger smile, and a more open heart.

While 2020 was a heavy year, 2021 seemed to be running ferociously to gain first place. I believe we are scarred in ways we won’t know for many years to come. We’ve lost so very much and come to know people closest to us in ways we never imagined. We’ve been divided by politics and religion. But we’ve also witnessed and hopefully participated in opportunities to cultivate newness. We’ve fostered new connections and created new initiatives. We’ve addressed injustices and made traction on sustaining these efforts. We’ve leaned more into learning about the pain and suffering of our global brothers and sisters. We’ve reconnected in meaningful ways. There is ample work to be done but perhaps in the midst of anger, angst, pain, loss, grief, heaviness, and the burden of 2020/2021, we found peace. We found joy. We found love. We found community. We found purpose. We found reasons to go on.

Reading Howard Thurman through 2021 gave my heart the resettling I needed. I don’t know what this new year will bring, but I am thankful for how the previous year ended. And if that ending is any indication of what is ahead, I am grateful.

Author

  • Sabrina T. Cherry

    Sabrina is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and resides in the Southeastern United States. She spends much of her time teaching, researching and writing about health equity and social justice.

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One Comment

  1. I’m concerned about this being a venue for a social justice warrior. Social justice as it operates is racist and has anarchist communist origins. I am retired from medical practice and know the concept of health equity is another social justice ideology. I spent 39 years delivering care to the most vulnerable of populations, but health equity that is mandated rather than provided out out Christian charity and a calling of individuals is a dangerous and enslaving proposition.

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