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People of Faith Howard Thurman

Albert Cleage James Cone Warith Deen Mohammed Thomas Dorsey Frederick Douglass Olaudah Equiano Prathia Hall Daniel Payne Howard Thurman Sojourner Truth Henry McNeal Turner Denmark Vesey Cecil Williams


Howard Thurman

Photo of Howard Thurman "The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men 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 hope that inspires." --Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream

Thurman was born and raised in Daytona, Fl. He was raised by his grandmother, who had been enslaved. In 1925, he became and ordained Baptist minister. His first pastorate, at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio, was followed by a joint appointment as professor of religion and director of religious life at Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta, Georgia. Thurman spent the spring semester of 1929 studying at Haverford College with Rufus Jones, a Quaker mystic and leader of the pacifist, interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation. Here he began his journey towards a philosophy that stressed an activism rooted in faith, guided by spirit, and maintained in peace.

Three years later, he began to articulate these views. In an essay entitled "Peace Tactics and a Racial Minority," Thurman depicted white America as characterized by the "will to dominate and control the Negro minority," a situation which engendered among blacks a spiritually crippling hatred of their would-be dominators. He suggested that a "technique of relaxation," might break this cycle.

In 1936, Thurman led a "Negro Delegation of Friendship" to South Asia. There he met the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. His conversations with Gandhi broadened his theological and international vision. In his autobiography, Thurman said that in his meeting with Ghandi, the Mahatma expressed his wish that the message of non-violence be sent to the world by African-Americans.

In his seminal 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman provided an interpretation of the New Testament gospels that laid the foundation for a nonviolent civil rights movement. Thurman presented the basic goal of Jesus' life as helping the disinherited of the world change from within so they would be empowered to survive in the face of oppression. A love rooted in the "deep river of faith," wrote Thurman, would help oppressed peoples overcome persecution. "It may twist and turn, fall back on itself and start again, stumble over an infinite series of hindering rocks, but at last the river must answer the call to the sea."


KEY MOMENTS OF FAITH

THE GOOD SAMARITAN

Thurman was raised in segregated Daytona, Florida. Schools there went only to the seventh grade, so Thurman's family scraped together the funds to send him to high school in Jacksonville. However, at the train station, Thurman was told he had to pay extra to send his baggage. Buying the ticket had left him destitute; he had no more to ship his trunk. Penniless, the boy sat down on the steps and began to cry. Then, a stranger - a black man dressed in overalls - walked by and paid the charges. He didn't introduce himself, and Thurman never learned his name.

When Thurman wrote his autobiography, he dedicated it "to the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago."

THE STUDENT AND THE PACIFIST

While still a student, Thurman began working as a youth movement leader, mainly through the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He graduated from Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary in 1926 and began his first pastorate, at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio. At Oberlin, he encountered the work of Rufus Jones, a Quaker mystic and leader of the pacifist Interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation. Thurman eventually studied with Jones, and described this time as the watershed event of his life. However, Jones' focus was global, and Thurman thought local. "How can we manage the carking fear of the white man's power," he asked, "and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred?"

A MEETING WITH GANDHI

In 1935-36, Thurman led a delegation of African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi. God-given faith, Gandhi proclaimed, could be used to fight the oppression of white American segregation. He challenged Thurman to rethink the idea of Christianity as a religion used by whites to keep black "in their place" with images of a white Christ and ideas of a land of milk and honey in the great beyond. Hindu principles offered Indians a basis for nonviolent opposition to British power, he said. Did Christianity have a similar power to overcome white racism?

A THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION

Thurman continued thinking and writing about his conversation with Gandhi for the rest of his life. He passed on his thinking to James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman expounded on the idea of Jesus as a liberating figure, bringing new testament gospel together with non-violent resistance.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF RECONCILIATION

In 1944 Thurman left his position as dean at Howard University to co-found the first fully integrated, multi-cultural church in the U.S. in San Francisco, CA. The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples was a revolutionary idea. Founded on the ideal of diverse community with a focus on a common faith in God, Thurman brought people of every ethnic background together to worship and work for peace. "Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you."