Why I Love Howard Thurman

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I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

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Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

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Published At Last – Barracoon

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Can you imagine being known as the last living African kidnapped by slavers and brought to the US 50 years after the outlawing of the slave trade?

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, playwright, essayist, and anthropologist, did try to imagine, and her curiosity drove her to patiently tease out of Oluale Kossola (slave name Cudjo Lewis), the story of his ordeal.  When she first met Kossola and told him what she was hoping to learn, he said, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and somebody say and callee my name and somebody sayn ‘Yeah, I know Kossola’,”

Part of the sadness of Hurston’s book, Barracoon, is that it was never published until this year, when it is so unlikely that anyone in West Africa would remember Kossola’s name. Several publishers refused it when she finished her last draft in the 1930s.

Kossola was a member of a sub-group of the West African Yoruba tribe. The US banned the slave trade in 1808, but people found a way to continue to smuggle enslaved people through the Middle Passage. A major supplier of slaves was the king of Dahomey, who acquired wealth and political dominance through the trade. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage in barracoons (Spanish for barracks) along the coast, and Ouida (or Whydah) in Dahomey was a major shipping point.

It was there that, in 1860, Timothy Meaher and William Foster sailed the Clotilda to bring 110 lost souls to the “New World.” The 19-year-old Kossola had been captured in a raid on Bante; his family and most of the citizens were slaughtered outright. The young men were yoked and brought to the barracoons of Ouida.

Though Kossola at first expressed joy that Hurston wanted to know his story, in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to meet him, he was often reluctant to talk to her. He was 86 years old, but his grief at never having been able to go home was still upon him. Some days she would bring peaches and watermelon as bait to get him to sit down with her; other days he would just ignore her presence and continue to garden or pursue other hobbies while she waited patiently.

Her persistence paid off. Reading Barracoon, one feels as if one knows this elderly man who has undergone so much pain, outliving his beloved wife and his sons and daughter. His voice is rendered perfectly, and you can hear him saying “you unnerstand me,” his oft-used interjection.

After emancipation, the Clotilda slaves had no way to earn the money to go home. And home didn’t exist anymore, though they couldn’t have known that. When they were kidnapped, their rest of their entire tribe was killed, and there was no Bante anymore.

So they re-created their home where they were, calling it Africatown (now Plateau). It was meant to be a place for only those born in Africa, but because of intermarriage among slaves there were many black people who were born in the United States as well. Renting land from their former owner until they could buy it, 11 families “created a community that embodied the ethos and traditions of their homeland,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword.

Thank goodness this book has finally been published! Most memoirs of formerly enslaved people were born into the “peculiar institution.” To hear firsthand from someone who was actually born in Africa 200 years after the first enslaved people were brought here is to learn more about the horrible mechanics of slavery and how one little band of people created their own homeland in Alabama.

It also teaches about the persistence of memory and the longing for that place called home. This should be an important part of our national conversation about dismantling racism. I have recently seen people who consider themselves “progressive” basically say that African-Americans today have no right to say they are victims of slavery.

Yet, knowing one is descended from people who knew no other home than a slaveowner’s plantation does cause soul damage. Knowing that one’s ancestors were considered sub-human does cause psychic damage. Knowing that the whole history of white supremacy gives white people today a feeling that they the right to trample on the freedoms of African-Americans – whether they’re having a barbecue or mowing someone’s lawn or waiting for someone outside a store – yes, that is victimization. We can’t stop it until we own it

The Cross & The Lynching Tree

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I didn’t know anything about James H. Cone until the day he died, April 28, 2018.

I was at a “Dismantling Racism” training in Georgia. His name was on the syllabus. When I went online at the end of the training, the first thing I saw was Dr. Cone’s obituary.

I subsequently learned that he was considered one of the fathers of Black Liberation Theology. It was recommended to me that I read his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011).

As the title suggests, Dr. Cone makes the case that “until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

Others have written about the nexus between Christianity and the avid way in which the oppressors’ religion was taken up by slaves. But Dr. Cone is the first I have come across to directly identify the broken body of a lynched person with the broken Christ on the cross.

He says that the cross has always been central to African-American worship because “the cross inverts the world’s value system” when it turns death into hope. Death doesn’t have the last word.

Enslaved blacks seized on the transcendent power of the cross; the cross is God’s critique of white supremacy, he claims.

This may seem like cold comfort at first, but for people whose lives were made to seem meaningless, the cross gave meaning to life and promised a life after death. And it did give hope. Dr. Cone quotes Richard Wright as saying, “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope.”

Dr. Cone gives a long chapter to discussing how black artists were often able to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree better than theologians and pastors. The blues were another way to transcend suffering, he says, and the poets, particularly Countee Cullen, who wrote about the “Black Christ” recrucified are many (see a portion of the poem below). He also writes about the famed Billy Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” written ironically by the Jewish Abel Meeropol many years before the Holocaust. Mr. Meeropol and his wife were the couple who adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

A long chapter is given to the most famous theologian of the lynching era, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was well-known as a social justice activist but who never spoke out personally or theologically about the sin of lynching. Many white supporters of equal status for blacks still used the argument at the time that “their day would come.” Martin Luther King Jr. would later say, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.”

Of course, a whole system of theology cannot be explained in a one- or two-page blog. I hope to give readers a curiosity to read The Cross and the Lynching Tree for themselves. But as Dr. Cone says, “Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. . .We continue to seek an ultimate meaning that cannot be expressed in rational historical language and that cannot be denied by white supremacy.”

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Let the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

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(Sermon preached on 6/3/18 in Great Barrington, MA)

Did you hear what I heard when Pastor Randy read the gospel? Did you?

Well, here’s what I heard! (I knocked over Lego towers on the altar.)

I heard walls coming down!

So in these two incidents in Mark’s Gospel, what were Jesus and His followers doing wrong that so bothered the Pharisees? It’s difficult even to count the ways in which they were breaking the precious law that the Pharisees hugged to themselves as if the law alone were salvation.

First, we have to understand that, according to the scholars, it was actually corn that they were making their way through and the ears of corn that they were plucking.

Making a path on the Sabbath? Unlawful; it was work.

Plucking the ears of corn on a Sabbath? Unlawful; it was reaping, which was also work.

Shucking the corn? Unlawful.

Plucking the kernels? Unlawful.

Do you notice what Jesus does when He tells the Pharisees about David and his companions? He’s really chiding and mocking them. They were supposed to be the experts on Scripture.

Try to hear Jesus’s voice: “Did you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?”

In other words, you’re the experts yet you ignore that story? What’s wrong with you?

We’re not given the Pharisees’ response, but I’m sure they were very angry at being outed as hypocrites by this man Jesus.

In the next instance, he comes upon a man in the synagogue whose hand was withered. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew he’d find that man there and also that the Pharisees would be watching him. This time, we know the Pharisees’ reaction; they were silent. They could not in public answer Jesus’s question about whether it was lawful to save life or to kill it on the Sabbath.

Why?

walls coming downBecause “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

We’re told Jesus was angered by their hardness of heart. What is hardness of heart, but a wall a person puts up in order not to have care about other people?

Throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, I hear walls coming down all the time. The biggest wall that came down was the wall between God and God’s people manifested through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

In everything Jesus did, He broke down a wall. Whether he was feeding the five thousand and teaching a lesson about sharing; talking to a Samaritan woman at a well; healing a Samaritan man who had leprosy (and was the only one of several men Jesus healed who came back to thank him!), or healing a woman’s tumor that was causing internal bleeding because she had the courage and faith to think that if she just touched his robe, she could be healed!

And what about the woman taken in adultery? Two walls were taken down that day! First was the wall of the draconian codes that said a woman should be stoned to death if found to have committed adultery. But notice, not the man! So the other wall taken down was the one placed by men between them and women, to treat women as if they were not also human. And Jesus said, Okay, if you’ve never committed a sin, go ahead, stone her, kill her.

So if Jesus spent His ministry breaking down walls that were preventing peopIe from receiving the grace of God, what does that tell us our job on this earth is? Is it not also to break down walls? Is it not that the Kingdom of God has no walls in it?

Because, He’s telling us, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” his narrator begins:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;”

He’s talking about nature, of course, which is really the Divine Order of things. The narrator’s companion, intent on picking the stones up and putting them back in place on the wall, will only say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” At this, the narrator says, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”

That darkness is the darkness of a hardness of heart wrought by a tradition that the man could not go against, just like the Pharisees. If you’re a gardener, you know that fences throw dead shade, as opposed to shade that trees provide with sunlight filtering  through them. There are flowering plants that just won’t grow in the dead shade, but will grow in tree shade.

This rejection of walls and darkness can be found in other religious denominations and traditions. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky, day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

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English mystic Evelyn Underhill knew it too.

“I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust, and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.”

Why?

Because something there is that doesn’t love wall, that wants it down.

Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about walls in Jesus and the Disinherited, referring to the oppressed and marginalized African –Americans who have been pushed by white society to a point where their backs are against a wall. It was true when Thurman was writing that book in the 1950s and it’s still true today.

I recently had an opportunity to be part of two wall-breaking  events in Georgia and Tennessee. The first was a “Dismantling Racism” training in Griffin, GA. I watched shutters be lifted from people’s eyes as we talked about our white privilege.

I’ve been going to such trainings since the 1990s, and I have come to the realization that I don’t even know how much privilege I have until a news story comes out about police being called because of African-Americans who wanted to use a restroom or were golfing or were taking a nap in their dorm or were just enjoying a barbecue. I’ll be learning about my privilege the rest of my life.

The second event was a retreat at a most beautiful cliff-side spot called St. Mary’s Place in Sewanee, Tennessee. About thirty-eight of us were gathered to learn how to use contemplative practices to foster energy and intent for compassionate action in the world. Using contemplative prayer to break down the walls of what Father Thomas Keating calls the false self that has all the ego mechanisms that keep us from truly experiencing the presence of God is a means by which we can go out into the world to help break down walls that keep other people bound.

Next fall, I will move to Georgia to join others in our common pursuit to break down walls and dismantle racism. My even considering such a move from my rural, settled life in Massachusetts indicates that God has helped me break down walls within myself.

Why?

Because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

That something is God.

He Accentuates The Positive

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Harry Bell, left, with CT NAACP head Scot Esdaile

“Instead of dope in a vein, hope in a brain,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. when he made a guest appearance on “A Different World” many, many years ago.

Harry Bell was 9 years old at the time and he never forgot it.

He had a good reason to be sensitive to messages about drug use. His young birth mother was an addict and she left him at the hospital where he was born in Bridgeport, CT. His aunt, Marvetta Bell, raised him. He grew in low-income housing where he witnessed peers be defeated by the negative situation of their young lives.

Mr. Bell chose a different path. “I always knew that with every negative situation, there is a positive way out,” he says in his bio. That positive way out for him was to create a series of coloring books called “Color a Positive Thought,” and he hopes to them into the hands of as many children as possible.

coloring book“I wanted to create something fun, educational and empowering at the same time,” he recalled. “I dwelled on it for weeks, considering many different ideas. During this time, I was hit with a huge blow that will affect my entire life. My son was diagnosed with Type One diabetes.”

But, “the day I thought my life had ended was the day my life began,” he says now. Seeing his son having to grapple with a negative situation, he tried to find a coloring book that would make him feel better. He couldn’t anything so he dug up an old shoebox full on inspirational quotes and sketches that he had collected in his youth. A friend who was a graphic designer took the sketches and ideas and turned Mr. Bell’s vision into a coloring book with his son’s face on the cover.

That was that, he thought, but his son loved it so much he took it to school with and showed his friends and teachers. One teacher passed it around to her coworkers and it ended with an invitation to talk to her class about each page. Soon, a news station called asking for an interview. It snowballed from there.

“Before long I was getting calls from local media, schools, churches, parents, daycare center, and libraries to speak or to do interviews about the book. Everybody wanted copies. Suddenly, I realized this was my calling.”

In addition to the coloring book, Mr. Bell has created two programs through his work as a school resource officer. One is a mentoring program that was inspired by his own mentor, Howard T. Owens. “The mentors are from low=income areas but they made it through,” he said. They’ve all experienced the negative influences that youth are going through, so their relationships with their mentees have authenticity to them.

Munchkin Fridays is another program that Mr. Bell started three years ago. It’s appropriately named, as those who participate are youngsters, and who doesn’t love a Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkin or two on a Friday?

He gives out doughnuts to about 60 children and with each one offers a positive message. Dunkin’ Donuts is now donating the tasty treats.

In a world that has many people feeling negative about a whole lot of things, Mr. Bell’s optimism and energy is refreshing and inspirational. I’m tempted to ask him to make a coloring book with positive messages for adults!

Mr. Bell is available for book signings and speaking engagements. His website, where the coloring books can be purchased, is http://www.colorapositivethought.com/

Who We Are, Who We Want to Be

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In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, amid the outrage and grief and disbelief, I had to re-learn a painful lesson for a white American.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are African-American journalists, politicians and activitists: Charles Blow, Bree Newsome, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vann R. Newkirk II, Jamelle Bouie.

Ms. Newsome, the woman who climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and took down the flag, put what the others were saying in one form or another most succinctly.

As white Americans cried, “This is not who we are!”, in fact, this is exactly who you are and have been and all black people know it, she said.

I know it too; I’ve been writing about it for some time now, but it hasn’t stayed at the forefront of my attention. White America is a racist society and has been since the first white European stepped foot on this continent and had the arrogance to claim it as a white man’s (and I do mean man’s, not human’s) paradise.

To make that paradise, however, meant neutralizing one way or another the indigenous peoples. Usually by slaughter, often by treaties that were never meant to be kept and to this day are not honored.

Then came the importation of Africans to actually do the work of building an economy. Next came the battles to seize land from the indigenous Mexicans, Polynesians and Inuits and Aleuts.

In every era, white “Americans” have taken something away from someone else, right up to the present time. Now, it’s not only enough to take something away, but white American society wants to bar others from coming in, based solely on religion. And even the liberal arguments in favor of immigrants more often than not points out their economic worth rather than their worth as human beings.

What happened in Charlottesville is not new to its black citizenry; Mr. Newkirk’s most recent article in The Atlantic spells it out briefly and powerfully.

We cannot say, “This is not who we are!” We can, and must, say, “This is not who we want to be,” but only if we’re willing to follow up words with action. Mr. Newkirk quotes Charlottesville-Albemarle NAACP President Emeritus M. Rick Turner: “People want to have a conversation . . . But see we’ve had conservations, ever since the Civil War, every time something happens. That’s why nothing ever gets done beyond that, because the courage stops right there.”

I could say that the counter-protestors in Boston and other cities this weekend prove this thesis wrong. But we have not heard the last from the white supremacists. Do we, who consider ourselves non-racist, have the courage to go beyond the conversations?

Heather Heyer did.

Innocent/Guilty “Until”

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Having just heard the verdict about the policeman who murdered Philando Castile, seeing Nick Cave’s exhibit “Until” at Mass MOCA was not only timely but even more devastating.

Cave’s installation was mounted in September 2016 and remains until September 2017. “Until” refers to “innocent until proven guilty.” Or does it? Guilty until proven innocent is what is really implied, because Cave’s art is built on, and haunted by, the ghosts of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith and more.

The program says that the installation began with Cave asking himself, “Is there racism in heaven?” His answer is an experience rather than just a matter of looking at one art piece. One is confronted by masses of glittery mobiles twisting and turning. They are mostly beautiful and mesmerizing; then one sees that many of the mobiles depict guns, bullets, and targets.

One walks through this maze of glitter to a crystal cloud atop which is a huge garden of ceramic birds, gramophone horns, and, startlingly, black-face lawn jockeys. One has to climb a very tall ladder to see this site of mainly found objects.

After passing through and around a wall of plastic beads that look like netting, from far away, you enter a dark room with a giant lifeguard chair in the center and a frenetic video that plays on the walls. While my sister and I were there, we were the only museum-goers who stayed to watch the whole video, which is unsettling and somewhat sinister at times. It ends with a chorus of black-face tap dancers; all the while, a video of swirling shallow water is cast on the floor, so you feel off-balance anyway.

IMG_20170621_123518488The last part of the installation is a metaphorical wall of water meant to seem cleansing. It is only the last part, though, physically. I promise that if you go, or have a chance to see it elsewhere, you will carry the installation in your mind and heart for a while.

To see a slo-mo video of the mobiles, go to Nick Cave installation.