Howard Thurman was a unique man-a black minister, philosopher, and educator whose vitality and vision touched the lives of countless people of all races, faiths, and cultures. Index; photographs.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
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At the end of my first year at the Rochester Theological Seminary, I became assistant to the minister of the First Baptist Church of Roanoke, Virginia. I was to assume the duties as pastor during the month that the minister and his family were away on vacation. I would be on my own. On my first night alone in the parsonage, I was awakened by the telephone. The head nurse of the local Negro hospital asked, "May I speak with Dr. James?" I told her he was away. "Dr. James is the hospital chaplain," she explained. "There is a patient here who is dying. He's asking for a minister. Are you a minister?"
In one kaleidoscopic moment I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here, and I felt again the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally, I answered. "Yes, I am a minister."
"Please hurry," she said, "or you'll be too late."
In a few minutes I was on my way, but in my excitement and confusion I forgot to take my Bible. At the hospital, the nurse took me immediately into a large ward. The dread curtain was around the bed. She pulled it aside and directed me to stand opposite her. The sick man's eyes were half closed, his mouth open, his breathing labored. The nurse leaned over and, calling him by name, said, "The minister is here."
Slowly he sought to focus his eyes first on her, and then on me. In a barely audible voice he said, "Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry."
I bowed my head, closed my eyes. There were no words. I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last, I whispered my Amen.
We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, "Thank you. I understand." He died with his hand in mine.
My father had died seventeen years earlier, in 1907. Those moments in the hospital had rekindled the new memory of the hurt and fear of a seven-year-old boy. Death was well known in our community. We did not know the cause or cure of typhoid fever. All we knew was that every summer there would be a regular death toll of typhoid victims. The course of the disease was as familiar as the distant but steady roar of the Atlantic Ocean, sounding across the Halifax River: first, the sick feeling and the depression; then, mounting fever; finally, the smell of the sickroom. Doctors could do little, but we used many techniques to break the fever. Sometimes we bathed the body with cold wet cloths, or wrapped it in large leaves stripped from the "Pomerchristian" plant. When all of these ministrations failed — as almost always they did — the word was whispered that "we will soon know one way or the other." A stillness pervaded the sickroom and settled round the entire house like a fog. Children were no longer permitted to play in the yard or in front on the street. Waiting. Waiting. Life came to a long moment of pause, for hours, sometimes days. Waiting. Waiting. Each was wondering, How long? How long?
At last, suddenly, the children would start to play again, communicating the joy of recovery, or one heard the crying and wailing of the women as their men stood mute. Either way, the crisis had passed. But parents had still other dangers to worry them. Which of us would drown in the quarry, where we were forbidden to swim? Who would be run over by the three o'clock train that came down the unprotected crossing, the shrill cry of the train whistle sounding too late? Who would be bitten by the everpresent rattlesnakes that lurked under the huckleberry bush where the biggest and most luscious berries grew? Death was no stranger to us. It was a part of the rhythm of our days.
My father, Saul Solomon Thurman, was a big man with a large frame. He worked on a railroad crew, laying the track of the Florida East Coast Railroad from Jacksonville to Miami, and would come home every two weeks. He was quiet, soft-spoken, and gentle. Sometimes I would pass the barbershop and look in. There he would be, getting a haircut and a shave before coming home from his two weeks' absence. He never wanted us to see him with his hair long, his face unshaven.
Suddenly one day, in the middle of the week, I heard him coming up the steps of our little house. The door opened and he fell inside. My mother and I struggled to get him to bed. He could hardly breathe and his body was racked with fever. He had pneumonia. Five days later he died. On the last day of his life, we could hear the death rattle in his throat. I sat on one side of the bed, Mamma on the other.
My young mother was a devout, dedicated praying Christian. My father was a good man, but the church was not for him. Even now I remember him sitting on the front porch, his legs crossed, looking into the distance, often with a book in hand that I could not read or understand. Sometimes I would crawl under the porch and lie on my back so that I could see his face without him seeing me. I wanted to see if he ever batted his eyes.
In the final moment before he died, my mother said softly and with utter tenderness, "Saul, are you ready to die?" Between great gasps for air, he managed to say, "Yes, Alice, all my life I have been a man. I am not afraid of death. I can meet it." With that, his body put forth one last great effort to breathe while we held him down in the bed as best we could. Then death. The long silence was broken only by the sound of our anguished weeping.
I helped my mother and grandmother bathe his body and "lay him out." In those days there were no Negro undertakers. There was one white undertaker in town, but the two races could not be embalmed or prepared for burial in the same place. Any embalming for us would have to be done in the home and, of course, it was almost never done.
The cost of the coffin was critical for the poor. When this sudden death visited our house, I was sent to our neighbors to ask them to help us by giving whatever they could. I was not self-conscious; there was no embarrassment. This was the way of life in our neighborhood. In sorrows, joys, good times and bad, this was the way we lived. We helped each other and we survived.
The burial and funeral arrangements were a serious problem, for in the eyes of the church he was a sinner. In the language of the time, he died "out of Christ." Our pastor therefore refused to permit him to be buried from the church, and naturally was unwilling to take the ceremony himself. But to have it otherwise was unthinkable, hurtful, and also impractical, because there were no funeral parlors, and our homes were all too small to accommodate a group of any size. What were we to do? My grandmother, who took charge of the situation, did so in her customary manner. She went to the chairman of the board of deacons. "You cannot make the minister take Saul's funeral, but he has no right to keep him from being buried from the church. We hold the deacons responsible for this decision. Ministers come and ministers go, but the deacons stay here with us." Of course, he read her meaning quite clearly. At length, he agreed that my father should be buried from the church.
Our next hurdle was to find someone to preach the funeral. By chance — if there is such a thing — there was a traveling evangelist in town, a man named Sam Cromarte. I shall never forget him. He offered to preach Papa's funeral. He did not need to be persuaded. We sat on the front pew, the "mourners bench." I listened with wonderment, then anger, and finally mounting rage as Sam Cromarte preached my father into hell. This was his chance to illustrate what would happen to "sinners" who died "out of Christ," as my father had done. And he did not waste it. Under my breath I kept whispering to Mamma, "He didn't know Papa, did he? Did he?" Out of her own pain, conflict, and compassionate love, she reached over and gripped my bare knees with her hand, giving a gentle but firm, comforting squeeze. It was sufficient to restrain for the moment my bewildered and outraged spirit.
In the buggy, coming home from the cemetery, I sought some explanation. Why would Reverend Cromarte do this to Papa? Why would he say such things? Neither Mamma nor Grandma would answer my persistent query. Finally, almost to myself, I said, "One thing is sure. When I grow up and become a man, I will never have anything to do with the church."
I remembered those words years later, driving home in the darkening shadows of that day in Roanoke, when a man had died, his hand in mine, taking with him my urgent prayers for the peace of his soul. I remembered too the road over which I had come, and followed my spirit back to the beloved woods of my childhood.
When I was young, I found more companionship in nature than I did among people. The woods befriended me. In the long summer days, most of my time was divided between fishing in the Halifax River and exploring the woods, where I picked huckleberries and gathered orange blossoms from abandoned orange groves. The quiet, even the danger, of the woods provided my rather lonely spirit with a sense of belonging that did not depend on human relationships. I was usually with a group of boys as we explored the woods, but I tended to wander away to be alone for a time, for in that way I could sense the strength of the quiet and the aliveness of the woods.
A neighbor who also enjoyed berry-picking would go with me, but his primary purpose was to capture snakes for the local zoo, where they were a tourist attraction. I marveled at his courage. If we saw a rattlesnake, he quickly pinned the snake's neck in the sand with a forked stick. Then he would lift it carefully by the head and tail and drop it into the gunnysack I held open. We suspended the sacks from tree limbs. When we were ready to leave, we collected the sacks and strung them from a pole we held between us.
At home he would defang the snakes before taking them downtown to sell. He was fearless. He would even catch alligators and owned one as a pet.
Nightfall was meaningful to my childhood, for the night was more than a companion. It was a presence, an articulate climate. There was something about the night that seemed to cover my spirit like a gentle blanket. The nights in Florida, as I grew up, seemed to have certain dominant characteristics. They were not dark, they were black. When there was no moon, the stars hung like lanterns, so close I felt that one could reach up and pluck them from the heavens. The night had its own language. Sometimes, the night seemed to have movement in it, as if it were a great ocean wave. Other times, it was deathly still, no rhythm, no movement. At such times I could hear the night think, and feel the night feel. This comforted me and I found myself wishing that the night would hurry and come, for under its cover, my mind would roam. I felt embraced, enveloped, held secure. In some fantastic way, the night belonged to me. All the little secrets of my life and heart and all of my most intimate and private thoughts would not be violated, I knew, if I spread them out before me in the night. When things went badly during the day, I would sort them out in the dark as I lay in my bed, cradled by the night sky.
The night has been my companion all my life. In Nigeria, at the University of Ibadan, at the end of the day after dinner and work, with the lights out, the darkness of the African night would float into my room and envelop me. I would listen to the various night noises. Here, too, the night was alive!
The ocean and the river befriended me when I was a child. During those days the beach in Daytona was not segregated as it was later to become. White and black had equal access to it. I was among the hundreds of people standing on the sand dunes behind the ropes as Barney Oldfield broke the world's auto racing record in 1910 on the great racing beaches of Daytona. Often, when the tide was low, more than a mile of packed sand lay where the races were run. Here I found, alone, a special benediction. The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings. The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances. Death would be a minor thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace.
I was made keenly aware when a storm came sweeping up seemingly from the depths of the sea. First there was a steady quieting — a lull during which the waves seemed to lack the strength to wash fully up the shore; the sea grass along the top of the dunes was still; no wind blew in the treacherous quiet. Then a stirring like a gentle moan broke the silence. Suddenly, the winds were ferocious and the waves, now ten feet high, dashed into the shore. Again, the boundaries of self did not hold me. Unafraid, I was held by the storm's embrace. The experience of these storms gave me a certain overriding immunity against much of the pain with which I would have to deal in the years ahead when the ocean was only a memory. The sense held: I felt rooted in life, in nature, in existence.
When the storms blew, the branches of the large oak tree in our backyard would snap and fall. But the topmost branches of the oak tree would sway, giving way just enough to save themselves from snapping loose. I needed the strength of that tree, and, like it, I wanted to hold my ground. Eventually, I discovered that the oak tree and I had a unique relationship. I could sit, my back against its trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night. I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that I was understood. It, too, was a part of my reality, like the woods, the night, and the pounding surf, my earliest companions, giving me space.
When I was growing up, Daytona had a population of about five thousand permanent residents. The number greatly increased in the wintertime when the tourists arrived. The wealthy, who were not interested in the social whirl of such centers as Miami and Palm Beach, found Daytona and its immediate environs to be an ideal setting. The Rockefellers, the Gambles, the Whites, and many other old rich families wintered there. For the most part, they employed local people, black and white, as servants and household retainers, while their chauffeurs and personal maids usually traveled with them, returning north at the end of winter. The tempering influence of these northern families made contact between the races less abrasive than it might have been otherwise.
Negroes lived in three population pockets. One was called Midway, the section in which Mary McLeod Bethune's school was founded and established. Midway was more progressive and more secular than either of the other communities. There were two pool halls there, as well as the single movie house open to us. The owners knew that if it were located in any other section, there would not be many customers. When I went from my neighborhood to Midway, I felt like a country boy going to the city. Next to Midway was Newtown, where the one public school for black children was located. The main street connecting Midway and Newtown continued into Waycross, the community where I lived. On the edge of Newtown and Waycross was the one source of recreation for all, the baseball park. The fact that it was so close to Waycross gave us children a certain pride of possession.
Waycross was made up mostly of homeowners. There was one restaurant, one rooming house, and the Odd Fellows Hall. The two churches, Mount Bethel Baptist Church and Mount Zion A.M.E. Church, were on opposite sides of the main track of the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks which bisected the community. In our world, there were only these two religious denominations; and the line between the two was carefully drawn.
One of my aunts was a Methodist through marriage. She had a happy youthful spirit and we children loved her dearly. But there was an unspoken awareness that she was a bit queer because she was a Methodist. The son of the Methodist minister was the spokesman for the Methodist kids in arguments on the school playground, and I represented the Baptist kids. We would argue all the way home from school. The discussions usually turned on the efficacy of the rite of baptism. The Methodist boy would argue, quoting the Bible, that John said to Jesus, "I baptize you with water," meaning to apply; thus, the Methodists baptized by sprinkling. I would rejoin, "Yes, but the Bible says, when Jesus was baptized, 'He came up out of the water,' and that could only mean that Jesus had been down under."
Excerpted from "With Head And Heart"
Copyright © 1979 Howard Thurman.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
II Years in Training,
III Launching a Career,
2. Haverford and Morehouse,
IV Crossing the Great Divide—India,
V The Bold Adventure—San Francisco,
VI The Weaving of a Single Tapestry,
1. Boston: One,
2. Boston: Two,
VII The Written Word,
IX The Binding Commitment,