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‘Scoot a little closer to the screen’

McCormick Theological Seminary students host a robust symposium on the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman

LOUISVILLE — “Scoot a little closer to the screen,” the Rev. Nannette Banks, vice president for Community Engagement and Alumni Relations at McCormick Theological Seminary said to an online crowd Saturday, “and lean into the power of transforming theological education and the life of Howard Thurman. Lean in and enjoy.”

The McCormick Student Council and Board of Deacons hosted Saturday’s three-hour “Thurman Symposium: The Beloved Community Experience.” Dr. Steed Davidson, dean of the faculty, said he was “proud of the daring feat our students have undertaken hosting this symposium.” Watch the forum here.

Deacon Douglas Gaines set the tone for the webinar early on, saying, “Reconciliation needs to be reconceived in a more robust manner.”

Dr. David D. Daniels III, McCormick Seminary’s Professor of Church History, invited those gathered to “think with me and with Howard Thurman, rather than think about Howard Thurman.” Thinking about Thurman is talking about what Thurman achieved, according to Daniels. Thinking with Thurman is taking his many insightful quotations seriously, including this one: “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?”

Dr. David D. Daniels III

“It’s the question all Christians need to deal with,” Daniels said. “We need to face head-on the failure, and we need to note our own complicity. Is it the collusion of Christianity with systems of injustice? … Does Christianity somehow lack a moral compass? Is it because there is a basic weakness in Christianity?” Daniels also wondered: Is fear really stronger than hope? Deception stronger than truth? Violence stronger than peace?

“When people call Howard Thurman an inspiration, a tutor of the civil rights movement, they are picking up on the fact that he was putting the gospel to another test,” Daniels said. In that movement, “people were engaged in active nonviolent resistance, getting into the thick of the battle and being willing to challenge the power structures without using their machinery.”

The Rev. Dr. Stacey Edwards-Dunn then introduced a panel that included:

Prelow talked about moving to Atlanta years ago, where she found work as a receptionist for a young congressional candidate named John Lewis. Thurman, Prelow said, “came to me at that certain point in life when I needed to be fed spiritually.”

It was in the early 1960s that Allen first heard of Thurman from Morehouse College graduates. “They helped create an environment that went beyond simply talking politely to one another,” Allen said. “They led us into spirited conversations. I was being educated about the impact of white Christian racist worldviews and about Black theology.”

Kimble called Thurman’s one-of-a-kind preaching cadence and speech “profound. When he’s preaching, he’s actively working through an idea, an unfinished thought. In that call-and-response moment he arrives at conclusions. I’ve done my best to model my own professional life after him.”

Dr. Reggie Williams

Each year, Williams teaches Thurman to McCormick students. “He is not easily transferable to our time, and yet he’s extremely relevant,” Williams said. “One thing is resonant: the inability of the country to recalibrate what is meant by ‘human’ after slavery.”

Thurman was Dean of the Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades. He wrote 21 books and cofounded The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the first integrated, interfaith congregation in the United States. His most celebrated book is probably “Jesus and the Disinherited,” but Steele also appreciates the meditations in “The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations,” “not because it’s about one child being born, but it’s about every mother who finds herself on the birthing stool.”

The Rev. Andrew Kimble

For Thurman, “the link to God comes when we see ourselves in others,” Kimble said. “We may think of Jesus as a poor Palestinian Jew, as Thurman sees him. But for Jesus, love means loving every person and having a global awareness that we don’t live on an island — we exist for other people.”

“I see Thurman through the lens of an artist — a transformer rather than a conformer,” Prelow said. “He talks about listening to the sounds of the genuine. Thurman urges us to go to that authentic space. If you go deep within yourself, you’ll end up touching people that way.”

“Thurman believed we can’t address racism and white supremacy through a tactical, superficial recognition of racism. We need to strike at the foundational core of racism and uproot the power of white supremacy,” Sit said. Following the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis residents were mostly protesting in their own homes and neighborhoods, Sit said. “The riot came from white supremacists coming to Minneapolis to use our city as a rage room.” People of faith must “respond with as much power and dedication as the folks who came to destroy my city.”

As an Asian American, people “who have been branded as perpetual outsiders,” Sit says he’s “found a lot of healing in reading Thurman. This basis for solidarity is ultimately what will change the world.”

The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Steele

Steele recalled studying Thurman while a fist-year seminary student. “I was mesmerized by his poetry, his mystical relationship with nature and by his relationships with his family and his church,” Steele said. “I grew up in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Smokies. Nature always meant something to me.” When Thurman described nightfall as more of a companion than a presence, “I felt embraced and enveloped. I felt secure. I loved how Howard Thurman lived out of a deep sense of identity and call.”

Panelists were asked to give viewers a favorite Thurman quote. Kimble delivered one of the most beloved and well-known: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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