Thursday afternoon, the word went out via e-mail that the Georgia Senate is on an extremely fast track to pass an amendment to the state constitution banning gay couples from marrying and preventing any recognition of such marriages licensed in other states. In other words, preemptively making sure that no efforts can be made to legalize these unions. In other words, as one gay legislator has commented, for the first time, purposely amending the constitution of the state to exclude a group of residents from a right enjoyed by others. Actively writing discrimination into a state’s governing document.
Doing so with the bare minimum public notice, doing so without hearings, pro or con.
WE MUST ACT IMMEDIATELY, the alert read. CALL YOUR STATE SENATOR TODAY. COME TO THE CAPITOL TOMORROW. Having been on the sending end of these for many years, I haven’t quite gotten used to being the receiver. Part of me is most fascinated with the changes in technology over the past few years. When I was the sendee: the public policy coordinator, the legislative advocate, the strategizer, the only tools available were leaflets and the telephone.
Hours of calling people, telling them what needed to be done, getting lots of busy signals, endless rings, or hang-ups. Voice hoarse, energy flagged, as I would explain over and over which injustice, which misguided policy or immoral budget item was being perpetrated. Trying to sound convicted, trying to remain convicted after hours, even days, of persistent, let’s face it, telemarketing, albeit, for what I believed was a righteous cause.
With the advent of computers, I was forced to install an internal fax, which, after much practice (and a good deal of frustration), allowed me to send electronic notices to many more people. The steady high sound of hundreds of phone numbers.
Tying up my one phone line, misdialing sometimes, or getting the same sort of repeated busy signals. And now the amazing ability to generate these e-mails that, with a click or two, get us immediately to the e-mail of a state or national official, or to a place to sign a petition, even write a personal letter. It is so much easier now. To do the pleading and to respond to the plea.
Ironically, in my view, while it is technologically faster and more efficient to act in the world of public policy, of advocacy, I have found it also to be a more private matter. I don’t have to go to a town hall debate or a legislative training. I don’t even have to talk with another human. Whether or not I act, what I do in response, and most important, what underlies my response, can be, an often is, an act of complete solitude. Like a meditation.
And while I am mostly an extravert who usually finds much information in the give and take of discussion, of continued conversation, of other opinions, it was conversely the problem of too much information, too much discussion, too many voices talking over each other, that ultimately overwhelmed me. And contributed to both my quitting the day-in-and-day-out world of direct legislative advocacy. And at the same time was the most compelling factor in, what for me was, a conversionary moment.
Not to a particular religion — since I have been a UU for as long as I remember — but the transformation from someone who almost exclusively acted in the public forum, under enormous time pressures, racing against the clock, in the spotlight, always accountable for victory or defeat. Transformation to a way of being which comes from a different and more holistic place. The place where my values and my religious and spiritual affections lie. Where my sense of meaning and centeredness abide. Where who I am and what I do are more connected.
This moment of change came for me, not up on a mountain top or in a desert wilderness, but coming out of a rapid transit station across from the state capitol, its gold dome shining. I had been coming in and out of that station for weeks during one stormy session, this time on welfare reform. I had been there with the others who opposed what we spoke out against as Draconian changes in what assistance poor women and children were given, how much and for how long.
But we rarely spoke, except in sound bites. We rarely talked with each other about the whys anymore. Just the hows. Who needed to be gotten to. What we were willing to live with — which got to be quite a lot. Because we had to live with the legislators we were lobbying, even if, it seemed to me, we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves.
Looking up at the dome and at the marble steps leading into the smoky, crowded corridors of power, it suddenly, I mean suddenly, came to me that we, that I, was no longer what I had imagined myself to be, a barefoot prophet at the city’s gates, crying out for justice.
Instead, we were — I was — on the inside with the money changers and the petty despots. Inside positioning, maneuvering, getting what little there was to be gotten in a 40-day session. No matter it didn’t help those children, those women. It was all there was to be gotten for now. There’d be plenty more years for things to come around.
On a cold February day, on a Monday, with another week ahead of hurrying up and waiting, of trying to figure out who was with us or against us. What was too much to demand, where am I coming from, I suddenly found myself asking. What sustains me, what keeps me grounded? What faith, what practices? What makes me any different than my very worst enemies?
Not the statistics and the budget numbers I could quote from memory. Not the rhetoric which might have once been soul-full, but which had become automatic. I needed to regain my soul, that moral compass, that sense of higher purpose that once had guided me. And perhaps it was time to take a pause, or maybe even turn from the strictly political to a deeper and more multifaceted way of approaching change, based in the Unitarian Universalist faith community, not so much as a competent operative but out of a sense of prophetic identity.
I tell this story because it was this incident and, truth be told, the toll this work was taking on me that led me a very short while later to quit my position as the public policy director for a non-profit urban-rural advocacy coalition and enroll in a theology school to become an ordained UU minister. And to coincidentally be assigned to be advised by Dr. Luther Smith, an African-American professor whose early work was in intentional Christian communities, places where people came to live together, work together, and work for social change.
I learned much about this from Luther in the years I was in seminary, but more foundational for me was the research he has done on African-American minister, chaplain, and teacher Howard Thurman, the man who provided Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King with much of the spiritual teaching — the grounding that he used to carry out his short but prophetic life’s work.
In the naming of those who influenced Dr. King, we hear often of historical figures like our own Henry Thoreau and his writing on the justification of civil disobedience, or Mahatma Gandhi and his theories on and commitment to the strategies of non-violence.
It is much rarer, even after the work of scholars like Smith and Dr. Alton Pollard III, also at Emory University, and the many sermons, memoirs, and other materials by and on Thurman, for his name to be called, his life to be lifted up.
Not as one who marched, but one who pointed thoughtfully and ardently in that direction. Not one who addressed thousands on The Mall, but who used his small multi-faith congregation and his conversations with would-be leaders as his way of shaping the movements to come.
In Luther Smith’s biography of Howard Thurman, The Mystic as Prophet, he asserts, and then quotes, numerous well known black civil rights activists as saying that Thurman sowed the seeds that bred a generation of activists, who cherished Thurman’s emphasis on the spiritual dimensions of social change. His commitment to exploring the deeper dimensions of human consciousness, the more complex aspects of transformation — regardless of the particular issue — drew persons like Whitney Young and Martin Luther King, Jr., who, it is said, sat at Thurman’s feet.
Otis Moss, noted civil rights activist, offered his witness in saying it might be that he (Thurman) did not join the march from Selma to Montgomery, or many of the other marches, but he participated at the level that shaped the philosophy that created the march — and without that, people don’t know what to do before the march, while they march, or after they march. So then, in brief, who was this man, this African-American mystic as prophet? And, what, after all, is a mystic prophet, and what, after all, can we learn from his ethical and religious perspectives?
Born in the almost-South, in Daytona, Florida, under segregation, he escaped to the more enlightened environment of Morehouse College in Atlanta, and did his graduate studies in Theology at Rochester Divinity School. After graduating from seminary, he accepted the pastorate of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio, confessing that he preferred doing ministry in a college town where he would not have to whoop, holler, or resort to any other such preaching styles in order to reach his congregation.
While no white person ever joined his Black Baptist church, there were visitors from other races and ethnicities, broadening his cultural contacts and making him realize that worship needed, as he said, to address the common concerns of people from varied racial and social backgrounds. Even in his first parish, he was beginning to work on making his preaching and his services an inclusive experience, one that touched on the deepest issues.
From there, he moved to Howard University to become the Dean of Rankin Chapel and a professor of Christian Theology. While there, he and his wife were members of a “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to India and other parts of Asia.
This travel and the connections he made internally and externally made the racial homogeneity of American Christianity more evident to him, and excited a vision that would, as Luther Smith writes, determine the rest of his social witness for the rest of his life.
Thurman wrote that we (he and his wife Sue) saw clearly what we must do somehow when we returned to America. Was it possible for religious fellowship could cut across all racial barriers, with a carryover into the common life and alter the behavior patterns of those involved? Could the experiences of spiritual unity among people be more compelling than the experiences that divide them?
When he returned to found the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in 1944 (in San Francisco), one goal was to create an integrated Christian church, not just to bring together separated groups, not to teach them the same dogma or have them study the Bible together, but through its worship and fellowship to provide and exemplify religious experiences and community building that would foster change on the individual level.
His approach to doing church, or what is called ecclesiology, was not to use his church as the base or spearhead for a mass social movement, even though his prophetic witness called for it. Thurman’s emphasis was on empowering each person to live responsibly in whatever situation he or she worked, socialized, or served. To embody and live out transformation.
If Thurman’s primary identity was as a religious mystic, then what was that, and how does it tie to our UU faith tradition?
Thurman believed that religious experience (and for him it was strongly theistic, that is, a belief in an over-arching God) is the purpose towards which life is directed. God for him being the force for love, justice, and compassion. In his understanding, the experience of God gives identity, meaning, and personality. But the possibility for this experience is threatened when conditions in the social order prevent this encounter, prevent any human being from a full and unclouded connection with these qualities and this larger vision.
While he did believe in and practice private and personal meditation and retreat, even a retreat at times from direct social action, he saw this always as being in line with a sense of community, a unity with that which he called God, and a unity with all life, particularly human life. Though acknowledging that, in his view, transformed individuals are the first step in remaking the social order — the need to understand for oneself where each of us “comes from,” true community, true justice, true peace can only be established when transformed individuals act upon social structures as they become involved in social mechanisms — social actions like demonstrations, running for office, boycotts, social criticism, for him was the natural and necessary consequence of what some would see as merely personal piety.
So, mystic he was, through whatever meditative and contemplative practices allowed him to focus on his sense of that something larger, that something both interconnected and deeply personal. That which was spiritual or spiritual practice for him is what provides, again, value and meaning to our existence, and the disciplines that one does to discern and express the work of the spirit.
But this personal work, this individual experience, was and is tied inevitably to effective public proclamation of critical consciousness. That which is not sound bite or speechifying. Emerging from a deeper internal conversation, it is then given external voice and then the actions and movements which follow.
This prophetic witness, while responding to specific times and conditions, is also universal, as the words of the Hebrew prophets still influence us today. Joined together, the mystic tendency to value individual experience, and faith that there is more unity than division in this, and the imperative to speak and act out of this critical consciousness, was demonstrated in the life and words of Howard Thurman.
And, though I did not know it when I was having my own deeply personal experience of being lost in a wilderness of self-interest and reaction, Thurman’s words and his example provide affirmation and hope.
That a fully-realized, self-actualized life and a fully-realized and actualized community and world require both inner reconciliation and outer reconciliation.
That there is a critical element of what some call religious faith that is essential to the formation of the individual and society, in Thurman’s case a belief that there is a God or a force in creation working toward harmony, completion, and the highest good.
That this innate force — called by so many names in so many different cultures — makes good ultimately more compelling than evil, relatedness more compelling than self-centeredness, healthy community more probable than continued conflict and isolation.
Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed and somehow knew that he wouldn’t make it to the Mountain Top where this vision would be realized, but his faith, this faith, was what drove him forward. Considerably shaped by, counseled by, urged on by, Howard Thurman as a Mystic as Prophet.
As we covenant to affirm the individual search for truth and meaning, the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, the interdependent web of existence of which we are apart, may we be about the holy work of transformation, may we be both mystics and prophets, alone and together, in our own wildernesses and in this, our own beloved community.