I never had the privilege of meeting Howard Thurman (1899-1981) though I, along with many others, have been inspired by his writings, prayers, and the story of his life. He was an African American preacher who reached out and spoke to people of all different races and backgrounds with great clarity and power. He was a hero of one of our Beeson heroes, James Earl Massey, and also to Martin Luther King, Jr. who carried Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited with him during the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott.
Thurman grew up in segregated Daytona, Florida, where he was raised by his godly grandmother who had been born a slave. Thurman was a noted writer who published twenty-one books including his autobiography, With Head and Heart. He was known as the poet of the pulpit because of the eloquence of his language and the passion of his thoughts. For twelve years, Thurman served as the dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. The current dean, Robert Alan Hill, recently preached a sermon in which he recounted a pivotal moment in Howard Thurman’s call to the ministry.
Thurman was already a seminary student at the time and, like many of our Beeson students, he spent his summer months in a ministry internship. One summer in the mid-1920s, Thurman accepted a summer position with the First Baptist Church of Roanoke, Virginia. The minister, Reverend A. L. James, brought Thurman to this historic church where he led the Vacation Bible School program and participated in the overall ministry of the church. Occasionally, he filled the pulpit when the pastor was out of town.
The young Howard Thurman, untested and somewhat unsure of himself, had to pinch-hit when pastoral matters arose in the pastor’s absence. One summer when the pastor was away on vacation, the phone rang at the church. A woman on the other line asked in a frantic tone, “Is Dr. James there?”
“No, ma’am,” Howard Thurman replied. “Dr. James is not in town.”
“Well, Dr. James is the chaplain at our community hospital,” the lady went on, “and we have a patient here who is dying and he would like to see a minister. Are you a minister?”
In that one sudden kaleidoscopic moment, Dean Hill explains, all of the struggle and the decision of Howard Thurman’s young life was suddenly laid before him. Are you a minister? A decision about vocation was required. All the ambiguity and worry of his choice, Howard Thurman said, was right there before him in that question.
A few moments of awkward silence followed, and then Thurman replied slowly, “Y-yes…yes, I am a minister.”
“Well, you better come and get here quickly,” the lady said. “Please hurry. You may not make it in time.”
Howard Thurman dashed out of the church, forgetting his Bible, and rushed to the hospital just as the man was about to take his last breaths. In a trembling voice, the man said, “Do you have anything to say to a man who is dying? If so, say it now.”
Thurman had few words to offer, but he did bow his head in silent prayer and concluded with “Amen.”
The dying man said, “Thank you. I understand.”
“And the man died,” Thurman recalled, “with his hand in mine.”
Are you a minister? If not, why are you answering the telephone at the church? Can you come? Can you come quickly? Do you have anything to say to someone who is dying?
Every student who applies to Beeson must write two essays, one an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, the other a personal account of their calling as a minister of the Gospel. To read through the calling stories of our students is to realize that God’s direction for our lives comes in many different and mysterious ways. Some report moments of dramatic encounter, as when God spoke to Moses from an inflamed bush of unquenchable fire, or to St. Paul on the Damascus Road in a vision of blinding intensity. Others tell about quieter occasions, as when Samuel heard the voice of the Lord in his bed at night, or when a businesswoman Lydia listened to a Gospel message by Paul. Sometimes our calling to serve as ministers of God’s flock becomes clear only in a tense-filled moment of crisis or uncertainty.
Sometimes it comes when we pick up the phone and someone on the other end asks, “Are you a minister?” “Will you come?” “Can you help?” There is no one typology of calling that fits every person, every minister. But there comes a point when, however hesitantly, however much still doubting or wavering, we answer that calling by saying, “Y…y-yes, I am a minister.”