By Madison Boboltz, Staff Writer
Seminary and undergraduate students joined members of the Logsdon faculty at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, for the yearly Logsdon Forum. This year’s focus was the legacy of Howard Thurman, an influential Civil Rights Era theologian.
Dr. Bob Ellis, dean of Logsdon Seminary and School of Theology, welcomed everybody by first explaining the two purposes for which they were gathered.
“The Logsdon Forum is something we do each year. Sometimes it’s in the fall, sometimes it’s in the spring. What we do is ask someone in the Logsdon faculty to bring an area of research or interest that they have to the community for conversation. Usually, it involves an intersection of faith and culture,” Dr. Ellis said.
In addition, learning and dialoguing about Thurman allowed the seminary to fulfill one of its major goals. “Another thing that is happening for the seminary is that we are especially focusing on how to better learn to communicate with one another as we develop our capacity for multicultural conversations and multicultural ministries. There is a two-year process we are doing with our accrediting agency,” Dr. Ellis said.
After Dr. Ellis’s introduction, Dr. Miles Werntz, associate professor of Christian ethics and practical theology, provided information about Thurman’s background, context, works and legacy.
Dr. Werntz’s research and commentary about Thurman was published in in an article for “Christian Century Magazine” this past August. Then, students and faculty watched together the full-length film released in February, “Back Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story.”
Dr. Werntz described Thurman as a “curious character,” because his method for opposing racism and violence seemed extremely counter-cultural. This, in part, was because he was not revered so much for his activism, as he was for his mysticism. He prioritized soul transformation over protest. He traveled to India, where he met with Mahatma Gandhi and learned of the power of contemplation. From then on, he taught that contemplation was key to invoking moral courage.
According to Dr. Werntz, Thurman’s most groundbreaking work was “Jesus and the Disinherited,” published in 1949. However, Werntz noted that it reads as if it had been written today, for it addresses problems which are still relevant. In it, Thurman points out that Jesus knew what it meant to be marginalized, for he was a poor Jew in a world dominated by Romans. Nevertheless, Jesus called for his followers to practice peacefulness and love in the midst of violence, suffering and oppression.
As the film pointed out, Thurman was friends with other key Civil Rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars argue that Thurman’s influence on Dr. King, as well as the advice he imparted, greatly determined the nonviolent resistance which defined Dr. King’s movement.
After the film, Dr. Kelvin Kelley, associate professor of theology, led a dialogue. First, he shared how he was inspired to learn more about Thurman. “I wanted to know the man more than I wanted to know about what he did,” Dr. Kelley said.
This, Dr. Kelley explained, is a more effective approach in learning to follow in the footsteps of those one admires. “Many Christian leaders were at the forefront of racist thinking, and what that has done to generations of individuals in American Christianity is horrifying,” Dr. Kelley said.
However, faculty and students expressed hope after learning Thurman’s story. Though the church may justify oppression, it can also be a vehicle for change, which Thurman realized and has passed down to those who also strive to reclaim the gospel for the oppressed and marginalized.