In a 1980 commencement address at Spelman College, prominent religious leader, teacher, prophet, and mystic, Howard Thurman, told the graduates: “You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls…”
Howard Thurman lived a life in response to the sound of the genuine found deep in his own sense of being. His thought and teaching provided a foundation for the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others during the Civil Rights movement. In his career, he served churches, was a teacher and Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University, and in 1944, he began serving as co-pastor of an interfaith and interracial church in San Francisco, California: The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. In 1953, he became Dean of Marsh Chapel and Professor of Spiritual Resources and Disciplines at Boston University. He was the first African American to be Dean of Chapel at a predominantly white university.
My own mentor, Professor Emeritus of Church and Community from Candler School of Theology, Dr. Luther Smith, says of Thurman, “He believed the thriving of the human spirit required attentiveness to the realities of the social order. Spiritual wholeness and social wholeness are interrelated (Smith, Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, 9-10).
Even though Thurman has been widely read and studied among seminarians, religious leaders, and those interested in this connection between spirituality and the social order for some time, his work is currently being received by wider audiences, in part due to a new documentary by Martin Doblmeier, Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story. The film chronicles Thurman’s life and features prominent voices from the Civil Rights movement, preachers, scholars, biographers, and even Thurman’s grandson.
At Oxford College, we’re blessed to have our own scholar of religion, Dr. David B. Gowler, who has recently co-edited, Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables. This collection of sermons on the parables that Jesus taught demonstrates the importance of Thurman’s teachings. In the foreward, Dr. Luther Smith says, “Thurman’s sermons challenge listeners to take seriously the reality that their lives have ultimate significance.”
Dr. Gowler and I have the privilege to host Martin Doblmeier and Dr. Luther Smith, Thurman Biographer, for a screening of the film, Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story on Wednesday, October 23 at 7:30 p.m. in Williams Hall at Oxford College of Emory University. This event is free and open to the public. For any questions, please contact Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace at 770.784.8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please join us for this important film about a transformative figure of the 20th century. Come and be inspired to listen more deeply to the sound of the genuine in your own being and to discern how you will respond for the good of the social order.
Let me close with these words, also from his 1980 commencement address at Spelman College:
“The sound of the genuine is flowing through you. Don’t be deceived and thrown off by all the noises that are a part even of your dreams, your ambitions, so that you don’t hear the sound of the genuine in you, because that is the only true guide that you will ever have, and if you don’t have that you don’t have a thing.”
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.