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Howard Thurman

The Relevant Reverend, by Rev. Dr. Herbert F. Vetter

Howard Thurman

Photo Curtesy of Boston University

Another example of the relevant reverend is Howard Thurman, who left a secure position as a university professor to pioneer in the founding of the first effectively integrated church in twentieth-century America. What his life’s work has meant is told in Footprints of Dream: the Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. Dr. Thurman there says, in recalling his father:

He was the first person I had ever seen die. I was seven, and my father was fifty-five. He had been sick only five days. I stood with my mother beside his bed. His magnificent chest showed the pressure from his lungs, as he fought for air. Up from his throat came the guttural noises which in our community was called the ‘death rattle.’ At length my mother said, “Saul, are you ready to die?”

With an effort supreme, he said, “All my life I have been a man. I am not afraid of death, Alice, I can stand it.”

At that moment his body was caught in a great spasm that lifted his large frame from the bed. We struggled to hold him down. Suddenly, it was all over. My father was dead.

Because my father had no membership in the local church, he was not regarded as a Christian, and the minister was unwilling to bury him from the church. In the rooms of our home there was not enough space for the funeral service to be held there. The funeral parlor was available only to white people; even the bodies of Negroes could not be embalmed on the premises of the undertaker’s establishment. My grandmother insisted that my father must be buried from the church. She carried her plea to the board of deacons, and she received from them the permission to use the sanctuary of the church for the funeral. A traveling evangelist, a Rev. Sam Cromarte, accepted the invitation to conduct the service. This was to us a most gracious act.

During the sermon, to our utter amazement, the minister “preached my father into hell.” Here was an object lesson to all unbelievers, to all sinners. As I sat beside my mother on the mourner’s seat, I kept saying to her, “He didn’t know Poppa? Did he? Did he, Momma?” Tenderly she placed her hands over my bare knees, gently patting them as she whispered comforting and reassuring words to me.

During the long drive from the cemetery I was able to question freely at last. My mother, grandmother, and I talked about what had happened. They tried to explain it to me. Finally, I said, “When I grow up to be a man, one thing is sure, I’ll never have anything to do with the church.”

When I once served as chair of a conference of clergy gathered at Philips Exeter Academy, I had the high privilege of inviting Howard Thurman, a minister I most admired, to speak to us, first about preaching and then about worship. At the beginning of the first address, he told us that he had never before been to Exeter. However, as a boy living in Florida, he saw National Geographic ads for the academy and yearned to go there to secure an education to fit him for his future lifework. Being poor, black and fatherless, he sent for the catalog but never applied for admission. Still, he relished receiving our invitation and rejoiced to be here at last to behold his dream. When the Exeter headmaster heard about this dream, he asked Dr. Thurman to recommend to him any boys he thought would like to have an academy education.

When our speaker was talking about preaching, he began by making “a remark that cannot be challenged: the preacher is a man who puts on his trousers one leg at a time, like any other man.” Today the profession is increasingly blessed by preachers in dresses, but the principle nonetheless is valid. As he went on in his spontaneous but structured way, he revealed to us our truest task: “The preacher is the sermon.”

When people ask, “Is the reverend relevant?” I think of the San Francisco dream of Dr. Thurman. He dared to engage in the struggle to incarnate religion as person-to-person fellowship. When humanity was rent with rage during World War II, he committed himself to work for human fellowship strong enough to break through the fiercely resistant walls of race and class and nationality. People outside of America and outside of the Christian family of faith had long asked him, “Why is the Christian church in the United States powerless before the color bar?” At that time he could not point to even one single local Christian church anywhere in America that had a really effectively integrated membership. How he accomplished this is the story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco.

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