Howard Thurman: Spirituality & Social Change

Celebrating Black History
Howard Thurman: Spirituality & Social Change


Join Dr. Liza Rankow and others Tuesday, Feb. 21st at 7PM, for a special introduction to the life and legacy of Dr. Howard Thurman. The event is free and open to the public. (See details at end of this post.)

Howard Thurman has been called a teacher of teachers, a preacher of preachers, an activator of activists, and a mover of movers. A visionary religious leader and thinker, he was a guide and inspiration to Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Marion Wright Edelman, Bayard Rustin, Jesse Jackson, and many others in the struggle for civil rights, justice, and freedom. Thurman’s work speaks directly to today’s personal and social issues, highlighting the powerful connection between spirituality and social transformation.

In 1936 he led the first African American delegation to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, and became an advocate of Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent social change. In 1944, Thurman co-founded the first interracial interfaith congregation in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco. This was a bold experiment!

At a time of local, national, and global conflict, Fellowship Church sought to discover whether meaningful experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than all that divides them, transcending the barriers of race, religion, nationality, culture, and social class. Throughout his life, Thurman’s central pursuit was the search for authentic community – the “common ground” (to use his term) among people at the root of our humanness and our spiritual nature.

I first heard of Dr. Thurman through readings from his many books offered during Sunday services at Agape International Spiritual Center in Los Angels. These brief poetic meditations revealed a wisdom and relevance that connected with me deeply, and launched me into further study.

Many people have probably seen a quote by Thurman that is circulating on the internet: “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.” The nurturing of this aliveness is crucial not only to living an authentic life, but to sustaining the work of activism.

Watering the roots of our spirit – as Thurman would say – is essential for renewal in order to avoid burnout, but also to deepen the place from which we engage, so that we may come from a more profound vision and integrity in our work for a better world.

Thurman was a mystic.  He believed in, and experienced, the fundamental Oneness of all life, and the presence of God, of the sacred, within all. He taught that the “inner” and the “outer” dimensions are not – can never be – separate.  That personal transformation and social transformation are not – and can never be – separate.  Like the in-breath and the out-breath, they are parts of a single whole. This intersection of spirituality and justice is central to Dr. Thurman’s life and teachings, and inspires my own work through OneLife Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit that owes much to Thurman’s influence.

On Tuesday evening, February 21st at 7PM, I’ll present a special introduction to the life and legacy of Howard Thurman at the Pacific School of Religion Chapel, 1798 Scenic Drive, in Berkeley. The session will feature extended excerpts from the video interview “Conversations with Howard Thurman,” and our discussion will consider the relevance of his wisdom for the present day. The event is sponsored by the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations of the Bay Area in honor of Black History Month, and all are welcome to attend.

Dr. Liza Rankow is an interfaith minister and the founding director of OneLife Institute.  She regularly teaches classes on Thurman in community and academic settings, and is co-editor of the six-CD audio collection, "The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman."