Howard Thurman and Social Action (Dr. Richard Boeke)
Dr. Richard Boek – Minister Emeritus, Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, CA
Reading: from "Mysticism and Social Action" by Howard
As a boy, in Florida, I walked along the beach of the Atlantic Ocean
in the quiet stillness that can only be completely felt, when the
murmur of the ocean is stilled and the tide moves stealthily along the
shore. I hold my breath against the night, and watch the stars etch
their brightness on the darkened canopy of the heavens. I had the
sense that all things – the sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and I
— were one lung through which all of life was breathing. Not only was
I aware of a vast rhythm enveloping all, but I was part of that
rhythm, and the rhythm was a part of me. Many years later… I
recognized the experience as being in itself religious, even… as
As one of the characters in the story of the African farm replied when
he was asked, "Do you ever pray?" … NO, I
NEVER DO. But I'll tell you where I could pray: If there were a
wall of rock on the edge of the world, and one rock stretched out far,
far into space, and I stood alone on that rock, alone , with stars
above me and stars below me., I would not say anything, but the
feeling would be prayer."
Commentary by Rev. Richard Boeke
Last week, I walked the beach a few miles south of where Howard
We were at Cape Canaveral, where hundreds of rocket tests and space
journeys have begun. One of two or three places where human beings
have left this earth and travelled out to the stars. At Cape
Canaveral, we learned not only glory but also tragedy. One burst into
flames on the ground. Another starship burned up in the Atmosphere as
it returned from space. For all the tragic moments, it seems all who
travelled into space experienced an awe, a holy moment. This was also
true of Russian Cosmonauts like Alek Leonov, who said,
The earth was small, light blue and so touchingly alone …
Our home that must be defended like a holy relic.
The earth was absolutely round.
I believe that I never knew what the word round meant,
until I saw the earth from space.
Two weeks ago, I took the riverside path home from our Unitarian
Church south of London. I was enraptured by the full moon rising over
the steeple of St. Mary's Anglican Church. As I looked at the
moon, I could feel something of what it is to be in space. This is
what Howard Thurman felt as a boy as he watched "the stars etch
their brightness on the darkened canopy of the heavens."
How wonderful to be upon this spaceship earth.
How wonderful to be "a piece of the universe made alive."
Reading: How to Help a Human Being by Howard Thurman (from
"Mysticism and Social Action.")*
I discovered that it is the nature of the institution – whether
church. state, school, whatever – to deal impersonally with the
problems in which persons are caught. For two years in high school –
and I'm not trying to be melodramatic here; the only life I know
is mine, I have to guess about yours – but for two years in high
school, I dressed out of what was called the "missionary
Have you heard of that? These barrels came from Maine and
Massachusetts and Connecticut, primarily; …
I needed the clothes, and I used the clothes, but there was something
deep in me that built and built a great hostility. Something was born
in me and it has a bearing on everything that I think and feel.
In administering to human need, what is always apt to be
missing is that it is a man who is hungry. It is a person who
is hungry. It is a child that is naked. We don't know, even with
all of the organized intent for cleaning up the world, the one thing
that I feel is apt to be missing, and which in my life … I would be
called to supply. – is this sense that it is the man who is hungry.
It is a matter of the profoundest kind of spiritual sensitivity to be
able to help, to rescue, a human being in a manner
that will enable that human being to forgive you for being able to
I am always glad for the way in which organizations … devote their
energies to the salvaging of the common life. … But for me, it is a
spiritual quality to feed a hungry person so that the hungry person
knows that he is being addressed, not merely his hunger. … Not just
my hunger is there, or my nakedness is there. But I am
The gift that the spiritually sensitive person can make to the large
scale enterprise is to find a way to introduce that quality to it.
…My life has moved to bear witness to my truth, … to make the
person who is victimized feel that he is being cared for, not merely
helped and salvaged.
* Thurman's response to a question following his lecture,
Mysticism and Social Action, UU Church of Berkeley, California, 1978.
Sermon:"The Soul of Compassion" by Dr. Richard Boeke
The morning after the lecture in our Berkeley Church, Howard Thurman
came back for a discussion in spacious room overlooking San Francisco
Bay. Perhaps 50 people had assembled for discussion. After almost two
hours the last question came from a woman. She said,
"I appreciate very much what you have been saying about the
inner light and the altar within … but I would like a change of
emphasis. It seems to me that all the emphasis has been on mysticism,
with very little discussion of social action. It seems to me that in a
world in which 2/3rds of the people are starving, in which a slight
touch of the button could destroy all the things for which we have
reverence, … that to concentrate on introspection is a luxury for a
very small elite in this world. … It seems to me that the times in
which we live call for more emphasis on …action … ."
Dr Thurman replied, "I appreciate your concern because it is also
my concern. … One of the first issues that I had to face – when I
was an undergraduate in Atlanta, … where should I make the weight of
my life felt most effectively … "I deliberately chose religion,
the church. But when I did, I found I had to make another deeper
choice. I had to make a choice between Jesus and Christianity. Because
I felt … there was something that would not give me the hope I
needed in the organized churches of Christianity. And yet, I could not
separate Jesus from the movement, which bore his name. When I began to
pursue … the logic of the choice, … then I found various things in
the life of Jesus that were not unlike the things I was going through
in American Society. When I had made that connection, then his life
begin to mean to me a source of inspiration."
At this point, many Unitarians can identify with Howard. We seek to
practice the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus. Howard
goes on to give the testimony, which you just read. He faces squarely
the human problem of how to give without making the person receiving
the gift feel inferior? Even Christianity teaches, "It is
more blessed to give than to receive." Out of his childhood
experience of the "missionary barrel," Howard calls us to
the spiritual task "to make the person who is victimized feel
that he is being cared for, not merely helped …"
When some think of mystics, they think "deadly serious."
Given to self-flagellation like the "Opus Dei" devotee in
"The Da Vinci Code." Howard was not like that. He used to
joke about the student who he overheard saying, "We thought
he was going to be our Moses, to lead us into the Promised Land, but
he turned Mystic on us!" When he was a student at College,
he put on his wall an ad with a photo of Rodin's THE THINKER.
Howard enjoyed telling that, years later, when he was Dean of the
Chapel at Boston University, a Professor came into his office and
looked at the picture. The Professor asked, "Howard, do you know
what he is thinking?"
Howard said, "No." The Professor said, "He is
thinking, where did I put my clothes."
Howard would arrive at the Boston University Chapel early in the
morning for his own meditation. Several mornings, he noticed a bearded
Rabbi standing in the hall, saying his prayers. He invited the Rabbi
into the Chapel. The Rabbi would not come because of the cross. The
next morning Howard had removed the cross. Again he invited the Rabbi.
The Rabbi was a little miffed at being interrupted by a black man he
took to be the custodian. At this point, Howard said,
"Don't you believe in the Ruach
Hagofen – the Hebrew words for the "breath of the
Holy." Then the Rabbi realized this was the Dean of the Chapel.
After that each morning he entered the chapel to say his prayers.
Howard often opened his sermons with the words of the 139th Psalm,
"If I should take the wings of the morning and dwell in the
uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy right hand lead me.
… " He believed in the omni-presence of the Holy. He also
believed "that nothing human is alien to me." When I invited
him to give the 1977 Lawrence Lecture in our Berkeley Church, he
graciously asked me what he should speak on. I told him of a split in
the church between the Jungian Mystics and the Social Actionists. A
few weeks earlier, I had given a Zen Sermon titled, THE MOST IMPORTANT
THING IS TO DO NOTHING. I was trying to emphasize finding the centre
of stillness: Thus being energized for action. But all the Peace
Committee heard was DO NOTHING.
Howard took the challenge and spoke on MYSTICISM AND SOCIAL ACTION. He
told us "my heart must be a swinging door, that opens in, and
opens out." Later he said, mysticism and social action are
linked like breathing in and breathing out. In India in the 1930s
Howard and his family spent an afternoon with Mahatma Gandhi. Howard
was the living link between Gandhi and M.L. King, Jr. After Martin
Luther King was stabbed in New York City, he asked to see Howard. When
Howard came to the hospital room, King was reading Howard's book,
JESUS AND THE DISINHERITED.
We got a BBC video of an interview with Howard. Each week we would
watch 10 minutes of the tape, and then discuss. On the BBC video,
Howard told of an experience from childhood that shaped his life. When
he was a child of six, his father died. Howard's father was not
baptized. So the preacher told the congregation, "He's in
Hell because he didn't accept Jesus." Little Howard
squeezed his mother's hand and said, "He didn't know
Daddy, did he?" Howard was an ordained Baptist Minister, but he
was a universalist who loved everybody: Christian, Moslem, Buddhist,
Jew. A Quaker wrote, "When Howard Thurman spoke, he filled
the entire room with compassion."
A Unitarian told how Howard helped her face her approaching blindness.
What did he say? Geneva replied, He didn't say anything. He held
my hand and cried."
Could we pause for a moment of silence.
As Howard came to the end of his lecture, he spoke the words that we
shall share as our affirmation this morning. When I looked at the
words, "some form of martyrdom," at first I was
repelled. What about suicide bombers? But Howard is speaking out of a
deep sense of compassion: Giving of himself to others, not killing
others. I realized his words are much like the Buddhist Bodhisattva
vow, "I will not enter Nirvana until all beings enter with
me." Or the words of Martin Luther King, "the man
who hasn't got something that he will die for, isn't fit to
live." If you wish, please join me in the responses in the
Litany: "There is a Unity" by Howard Thurman
The ultimate logic of social action may be some form of martyrdom.
This is not an exercise in futility. It is what must be done at
last to save our own souls and to keep access to the altar in our own
To overcome what may at first glance seems to be sickness and
To let my own life become an act of redemption – Not of anybody
else's soul, but of my own soul.
There is a unity, which binds all living things into a single whole.
This unity is sensed in many ways.
Sometimes when walking alone in the woods, a stillness settles in
the mind. Nothing stirs.
The imprisoned self seems to slip outside its boundaries. The ebb and
flow of life is keenly felt.
One becomes part of a single rhythm, a single pulse. Sometimes
there is a moment of complete identity with a loved one. The intensity
and anguish deeply felt.
One enters through a single door of suffering into the misery of the
whole human race.
What is felt belongs nowhere, but is everywhere, binding and
holding all life in a single timeless grasp.
There is nothing new or old. Only the knowledge that what comes as a
flooding insight of love binds all things into a single whole.
The felt reverence deepens and deepens. To live and to love are
A pulsing unity binds all things into a single whole.
What the mystic discovers, must be true for all, good and bad,
saint and sinner alike:
The indwelling presence, our authentic identity.
The call to social action, therefore, must never be an end in
itself, but rather a means by which the individual sufferer can get
access to his or her own altar.