In this series of posts, University of Roehampton chaplaincy staff will be reflecting, as part of Black History Month, on people who have inspired them. We begin with Methodist Chaplain Rev Nicola Morrison writing about Howard Thurman.
To me Howard Thurman – author, philosopher, theologian, educator, pastor and American civil rights leader – is one of the great spiritual leaders of the twentieth century. As a Christian Chaplain I turn to his writings again and again as a resource for my devotional life and my understanding of Christian love, compassion, inclusion, activism and witness. (Those who have attended the Roehampton Carol Service over the past years will have heard some of his poetry and prayers).
A supremely-accomplished individual, Thurman was the grandson of former slaves who stressed education as a means of overcoming racial discrimination. Amongst many inspiring acts and achievements Howard Thurman resigned his tenured position in Howard University in order to help establish the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. This was the first racially integrated, intercultural and interdenominational church in the United States, intentionally designed to break through the barriers that separated people on the basis of race, colour, creed, or national origin.
Thurman was later appointed the first African American Dean of Chapel at a traditionally-white American university (Boston) where he arrived determined to test his ideas of common ground and community within a diverse context. When he retired from the university in 1965 he founded and directed the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, which provided funding for college students in need and in so doing continued to promote the primacy of education.
As a Methodist Minister, social action is a part of my DNA and so I am deeply inspired by how Thurman married his Christian faith with an utter passion and conviction for social justice, like two sides of the same coin, expressed through both his theology and practical actions.
His theology of radical nonviolence, inspired by Quaker pacifist Rufus Jones and a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in 1934, influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists to whom Howard Thurman was a mentor. These leaders included Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thurman devoted his life to God and the pursuit of a society that could acknowledge its differences yet elevate its common human ties. He envisaged a world where racial, ethnic, and religious barriers no longer serve as an obstruction to creating meaningful relationships and an equitable world. Both his work and his example continue to challenge us all to create communities rooted in openness, inclusion, generosity, and fellowship. Thurman was a man ahead of his time and in many ways is remains ahead of ours. As such Howard Thurman will continue to be a source of inspiration to me and others of all faiths, backgrounds and traditions.
Rev Nicola Morrison is Methodist Chaplain at the University of Roehampton.