Scholar and activist the Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison II shares his insight into the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison II has discovered heaven on Earth. For him it involves spending time at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, with others who admire, as he does, the late Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, one of Christianity’s most celebrated authors, preachers, scholars and mystics — and then being asked to edit a book on Thurman.
That book, published last year by Westminster John Knox Press, is “Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide and Prophet.” Contributors included Marian Wright Edelman, Parker J. Palmer and Barbara Brown Taylor.
“It literally was heaven on Earth,” Ellison told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty during Wednesday’s Leading Theologically podcast. Hinson-Hasty is senior director for Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Foundation. Ellison, the founder of Fearless Dialogues, is an author and associate professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “Those are Kairos moments,” Ellison said of the time the friends spent together, “moments when human action meets divine intervention, when something breaks into history and the moment becomes timeless.”
Their time together was less like a conference and “more like a family reunion,” Ellison said. “Haley Farm is holy ground. Once the gates closed, these very public individuals felt like they could take off their masks” and be themselves, he said. “We felt surrounded by an angelic presence. That’s what Thurman is calling us to do as we build community and wrestle with life’s hardest questions.”
One of Thurman’s favorite questions was this one, according to Ellison: What must we as a faith community do to die a good death?
“It seems like a grim question to ask in a country riddled by racial trauma and the pandemic,” Ellison said. “But according to Thurman, a good death is predicated on living a good life.”
Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of Thurman’s death. Ellison and others are part of a Journey Films webinar honoring Thurman, which will air that day. Learn more and register here.
In a film about Thurman, “Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story,” the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, says of Thurman, according to Ellison, “We were looking for a Moses and we got a mystic.”
“Thurman had this authority as a religious thinker. He was respected and well-regarded,” Ellison said. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. carried around a dog-eared copy of Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” when he traveled. When King and Thurman were together, they would listen to radio broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodger baseball games featuring Jackie Robinson. In 1953, Life called Thurman — along with Billy Graham and William Sloane Coffin — one of the nation’s 12 most influential religious leaders.
“He was recognized, but he did not fit into the box,” Ellison said. “Was he an activist? Scholar? Preacher? He punctuated his sermons with long silences. He was a strange guy, and that’s why I like him … I was one of those kids kicked out of Sunday school for asking too many questions. Through his oral and written work, he became a confidant. I didn’t feel strange anymore.”
“Howard Thurman is in the cloud of witnesses of my ancestors that live and walk with me,” Ellison told Hinson-Hasty.
“We are engaged in struggle for generations to come,” Ellison said, recalling what a Korean student of his told him early in the pandemic: “I don’t need social distance,” the student told Ellison. “I need distant socializing.”
“There is a deep and inherent need for people to be in community, even in a pandemic,” Ellison said. “People need to be known by name. How do we create spaces” in our communities of faith, whether online or a more traditional phone tree, “to create spaces of belonging, where people feel there presences is value and their life is meaningful.”
A small community in Ohio with which Ellison is working has that all figured out. If I were to visit your community, Ellison asked the group one day, where would you take me to find unique gifts? Who would you introduce me to?
That’s easy, one woman told him: we’d go to the town’s library.
That’s interesting, Ellison told her. What’s happening at your library?
A few weeks into the pandemic, the town’s only grocery store closed down, and the library soon started doubling as a farmer’s market. Library staff are happy to fax paperwork for the town’s senior citizens. The library used its reserves to purchase hot spots around town for students who had no other internet access to participate in online instruction.
“Here we have a gift otherwise hidden in plain view,” Ellison said of what he learned from that community. “People feel more tethered because their library is doing relevant ministry. How can the church partner with the library? That becomes the question.”
Asked by Hinson-Hasty for a benediction to close their time together, Ellison chose these words from Thurman:
“Look well to the growing edge! All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the Earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit.
“Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of the child — life’s most dramatic answer to death — this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!”
“God bless you,” Ellison said, “on your journey.”
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Categories: Presbyterian Foundation
Tags: anchored in the current, backs against the wall: the howard thurman story, billy graham, candler school of theology, emory university, haley farm, jesus and the disinherited, leading theologically, presbyterian foundation, rev. dr. gregory ellison, rev. dr. howard thurman, rev. dr. lee hinson-hasty, rev. dr. otis moss iii, westminster john knox press, william sloane coffin
Ministries: Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice