The Growing Edge

Howard Thurman, a Pilgrimage and a Word from Dr. Starsky Wilson

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 lives, 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 a child — life’s most dramatic answer to death — this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!
—Howard Thurman

If there’s anything that I know is true it is this: we find the teachers we need at the exact time we need them. I live with an abundance of good teachers. I always have. I could fill pages of stories about the people that have entered my life to teach me how to live. Some of these teachers have been in person people who have quite literally walked with me and some of these teachers have been far away people that have taught me through books and through the example of their lives.

Four years ago I needed a teacher, and during one of my early morning 4 am iPhone deep dives I found one. I was looking for my first spiritual director and as is usually the case, I didn’t know what I needed. I found Eric. I was drawn to Eric because it said in his bio that he was a playwright. (Maybe we’ll speak the same language.) Eric was a chaplain at Pepperdine University in Malibu. I reached out and we made a time to talk on the phone. For two years we met once a month across 1,864 miles to talk and pray; and, while spiritual direction isn’t “teaching” per se, Eric taught me much. Funny enough, Eric was actually from St. Louis originally and though we had never met face to face, we always talked about meeting up at some point when he was visiting back home. But after two years we still hadn’t met in person.

Eric plays in the band Nine Beats Collective that was going to be performing at the Wild Goose Festival in Asheville, NC in July 2019. I had always wanted to go to the festival and when I heard he was going to be there, I grabbed my friend David and said “Let’s road trip.” So off we went to the mountains of North Carolina to meet Eric and while we were there I was excited to hear some of my favorite authors and even meet up with some old friends.

The first day David and I signed up for something called Wisdom Camp. Yup. While there, we sat next to a sweet man named Glenn who had been a pastor at a conservative church that he had recently left. He was in pain. He was in the midst of deconstructing a faith of which he had been so sure . One of the issues at the heart of Glenn’s leaving was his realization around the place that LGBTQ+ people had in the church. Glen shared that he had been wrong about the church’s exclusionary methods and conditional love for LGBTQ+ people. I watched him share this with David, who as a gay man had felt excluded and unloved by the church his whole life. As David listened it was as if I saw a spiritual pall lift off my dear friend. I’m not sure if Glenn realizes the impact he had on David that day or on me. David and I laughed and cried as we listened to Glenn’s podcast on our drive out of the mountains and back into the midwest. I recently was on Glenn’s podcast talking about spiritual direction, mindfulness and centering prayer.

Later that day.. in Wisdom Camp ( … I know)

Lorita Coleman Brown gave a lecture on Howard Thurman. I sat transfixed as I listened to her tell the story of Thurman’s life. Then deeply moved as I listened to Thurman’s own deep resonate voice read from his contemplative poetry and sermons. HOW HAD I NEVER HEARD OF HOWARD THURMAN UNTIL THIS MOMENT?

Here’s just a few things to know about Thurman:

  1. In 1923 Thurman graduated from Morehouse College as a valedictorian and in 1925 was ordained a Baptist minister at First Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia.

  2. He was the dean at Rankin Chapel at Howard University from 1932 to 1944.

  3. He led a Christian delegation to India as part of the “pilgrimage of friendship” that led to his meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. It was here he learned about the concept of ahimsa or non-violence.

  4. He was an influential mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. who carried a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited with him always.

  5. In 1944 he left Howard to start the first inter-racial, interdenominational church withe Alfred Frisk in San Fransisco called Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples.

  6. In 1953 he was invited by Boston College to be the dean of Marsh Chapel where he was the first Black dean of a chapel at a majority white university.

  7. In 1929, when as a special student at Haverford College, Thurman was a student of Rufus Jones, a noted Quaker philosopher and mystic . Later he was a teacher of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement and inter-faith dialogues.

  8. Thurman was a deeply contemplative mystic and teacher.

On that trip to Hot Springs, North Carolina I finally met my spiritual director Eric, but the trip turned into something more. It was a full blown pilgrimage to meet the teachers we didn’t even know we needed.

I’ve been thinking about Howard Thurman a lot lately. About the growing edge – the “hope in moments of despair” or the growth that starts beneath the hard surface or the seed of promise during hard times. I’ve been trying to look for it. Right now in the dead of winter, in the midst of crisis it’s hard to see the growing edge.

“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.”

But then I think of Psalm 30. You can’t read that Psalm without hearing Dr. King’s voice, hearing it beckoning us towards that growing edge.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
    and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
    and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning
. - Psalms 30:5, ESV

For me, sleeplessness comes in the morning. In another early morning iPhone archeological dig, I found another teacher of mine, the Quaker author, educator and activist, Parker Palmer has a podcast with the singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer called The Growing Edge, after Thurman. I scanned through the episodes and landed on one about Thurman. They were interviewing Gregory Ellison II, a professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Emory University at Candler School of Theology. Ellison was talking about the new book that he edited on Thurman called Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet. (Oct ‘20). The book is a collection of essays around Thurman’s legacy in the areas of education, activism and faith. Palmer is a contributor. Another contributor’s name popped out to me - Dr. Starsky Wilson. I knew that name.

Dr. Wilson was the director of the Forward through Ferguson Coalition and the pastor at St. John’s church in St. Louis. He has since left St. Louis to take over for Marian Wright Edelman as CEO and President of the Children’s Defense Fund. Some incomparable shoes to fill. But why Dr. Wilson’s name was so clearly in my head was because around the same time as Ellison’s book was coming out, Wilson preached a guest sermon at my church. I went back and watched it. I was still looking for the growing edge.

Dr. Wilson spoke of the lie of American exceptionalism and the project of rebuilding and owning the narrative of our country. He preached on Nehemiah chapter 4 where the Jews are in the midst of rebuilding the wall surrounding the temple at Jerusalem and are being mocked by their enemies, the Arabs and Ammonites. They not only mock the Jews, but threaten their very lives and their progress on building the wall. Without the wall there is no city. Without the city there is no community. What does Nehemiah do in the face of this threatening oppression? He does two things. He encourages them to pray. They prayed so their enemies could hear them. They even prayed for their enemies. And second, they posted a guard to protect their progress.

14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” 15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work. 16 From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor.

(Neh 4:14-16, ESV)

Verse 16 is interesting to me. It brings me back to Thurman. When we think of the history and the hard work of civil rights in this country, we think about Martin Luther King Jr, Ida B Wells, Malcolm X, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis and so many others. These are the wall builders. But rarely on those lists of activists do we see Howard Thurman’s name. After returning from India, civil rights leaders thought that Thurman would be a unifying force. However, Thurman took a different path.

“It was my conviction and determination that the church would be a resource for activists – a mission fundamentally perceived. To me it was important that the individual who was in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church. There must be provided a place, a moment, when a person could declare, I choose.”

There it is.

Some are called to be wall builders and some are called to stand sentinel and protect progress. The wall builders can continue to work because of those standing guard. Howard Thurman called the church to join him in standing guard to protect progress. To offer renewal and fresh courage. To help balance action with prayer. There are activists and there are mystics and hopefully we hold space for both to take root in us. For as the teacher says, “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 lives, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge!”

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