Rev. James Lawson Gives New Year’s Message to America

Civil Rights Leader Rev. James Lawson focused on the power of vision and nonviolence in his presentation for a McClendon Scholar in Residence webinar on Feb. 10.

Our nation’s founding documents provide “monumental and miraculous” visions for our nation, but forces of sexism, racism, violence and “plantation capitalism” have prevented the United States from realizing these visions, said Lawson. And the “nonviolent campaign” of the mid 20th century provides a model for realizing those visions today.

The Gift of Vision. Rev. Lawson, the architect of nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, began his talk with a focus on vision. Drawing on the King James translation of Proverbs 19:18—“Where there is no vision, the people perish”—Rev. Lawson suggested adding a verse: “Where vision flourishes, the people prosper.”

“The God of history gave we the people of the USA visions,” said Lawson, referring to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents represent “monumental, miraculous vision in the midst of a world that was largely under the domination of tyrannies.” And the visions of these documents can heal our community today, he argued.

According to Lawson, our current political divides stem from “the tension of a promising future against the reality of our not wanting to use the visions we have.” Four interconnected forces hold us back: sexism, racism, violence, and plantation capitalism, he said, adding to and modifying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s triad of racism, materialism and militarism.

Sexism and Plantation Capitalism. In listing his four forces, Lawson listed sexism first, emphasizing its importance, and said that each of these four forces relies on the others, with violence permeating them all, especially what Lawson calls “plantation capitalism.”

“We do not have a free market, we do not have entrepreneurship, because we are an economy that worships wealth and fame and the power and the political domination that comes from the wealth. And we are more of a plantation capitalist society today than we were in 1787 or 1789.” Currently, our nation’s politics are “more connected to these forces than … to a vision of the equality of all humankind,” said Lawson.

A Model for Today. But what John Lewis termed the “nonviolent campaign of America” from 1953 to 1973 is a model for realizing our founding visions today. Lawson called the civil rights movement an umbrella term that originates in 1866 civil rights legislation, and said the nonviolent campaigns of the 1953 to 1973 form one part of this bigger movement. These “direct action campaigns,” from the Little Rock Nine to the Montgomery bus boycott to sit in campaigns in Nashville and across the nation, were “dramatic manifestations of our determination that the United States will end its experiment with becoming a racist nation, especially in the light of the Constitution and ‘we the people.’”

Rev. Lawson made a distinction between education and training for these nonviolent campaigns. Education focused on the “why and how” of nonviolence, while training, especially the preparation immediately before an action, focused on “preparing our emotions” for the physical/psychic threats which the protestors were likely to endure. It was a disciplined people who engaged in the struggle, and part of the education was to discover the humanity of those who opposed us, he said.

The Work of the Church. Lawson prefers Lewis’ term “nonviolent campaign” to refer to the 20th century civil rights movement, but noted that these campaigns could also be called “the Black Church Movement.” They provide “an illustration of engaging Jesus’ primary teaching of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven … a major example of what it means to be the people of God, he said. “I lay it before you – if you want to talk about what the work of the church … ought to be. There it is. … That’s the message.”

This model can be updated, and that work has already begun in the Black Lives Matter movement, which, he emphasized, has been largely nonviolent. Asking Martin Luther King’s question, “Where do we go from here?”, Lawson said academia and unions, in addition to religious organizations, all have a role to play. “What the world needs is nonviolent campaigns that make the 20th century look pale in comparison,” he said.

After his talk, the program included questions and dialog between Lawson and Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship United Methodist Church, who is a family friend of Lawson, along with Civil Rights Leader Bernard Lafayette and Historian Taylor Branch. Asked what vision should be lifted up for our nation today as the program came to a close, Lawson returned to his theme: “We hold these truths to be self evident,” he said. “That’s the most important vision and the most teachable.”

Lawson concluded the evening:

“Nonviolence is the creative energy of the universe, that created the universe, that created the human race and spread us across the earth, and it is the power we must learn if indeed we appreciate the gift of life and want to exalt that gift in every way we can.”

You can watch Lawson’s full webinar here.

Final Webinar on Criminal Justice Reform with James Forman Focuses on the Practical

In the last of a series of three webinars, Yale Law Professor James Forman Jr. focused on practical, community-based solutions for improving policing, reforming the criminal justice system, and helping those who are currently or formerly incarcerated.

Throughout his conversation with the McClendon Scholar Program’s Theo Brown and with three members of congregations active in the Returning Citizens Assistance Network, Forman looked toward building alternatives to our current criminal justice system. While the answers to changing our current system will vary community by community, he emphasized that local community action has the power to make significant change.

Retribution, Rehabilitation, Restoration
In response to an informal survey, many participants had called for a reformed system guided by rehabilitation, versus retribution. Forman affirmed that perspective – and took it further.

“Retribution is one of the theories that underlies our system,” he said, “And we all have retributive impulses. I know I do.” He noted that these impulses have “overwhelmed our justice system.” Instead, he said, he likes to focus on a vision of restoration. “What does it take so people thrive … so people feel safe? At the end of the day that’s what we want: Flourishing, the ability to dream.”

Participants also called for eliminating the bias in our current system. Forman again affirmed the concern. US history has included a bias against people of color, he said, “since even before there was what we could call a system,” and that it “touches and pollutes every aspect” of our current criminal justice system.

Promising Ideas
Forman said that he sees the most promising action happening at the community level, where communities and cities come together to ask “What can we do to reduce police contact with citizens?” While there is bias in every part of the criminal justice system, he said, contact with the system begins with the police. How can that contact be reduced? For example, he asked, “what if we sent mental health workers to respond to people wo are in crisis?”

“We’ve been trained as a nation that if there’s a problem, if the music is loud … if you have someone in your community or your family that’s having a mental health breakdown, we’ve been trained to call 911 over and over again.” Forman is most excited these days about initiatives to build up alternatives: “Those are the things that will make us safe and make us free with less policing and less racial bias.”

Defunding versus Building
Forman says he stays away from the term “defund” when talking about policing. Instead, he likes to focus on what we can build. He agreed with moderator Theo Brown that imagination is crucial for these initiatives, and he once again also emphasized the practical. Currently, criminal justice is one of the most popular college majors. But we need universities to train people for new systems: “Where’s the training program for the people who are going to work in this alternative to 911 system that I’m describing?”

This emphasis on building also addresses the potential fear in communities. “Always start with what we’re building, creating, doing” he said, encouraging everyone to look for the programs and projects that currently exist. “It might be a program with a staff of one, it might be operating out of a church basement … but it’s there.” Lead with that program, tell a story of success as you work for systemic change, he advised, adding “Black communities right now … they don’t want to have less, they want to have more. … You cannot start with what they’re going to lose on the public safety front. You have to start with what you’re going to build.”

The Moral and the Practical
The second part of the one-hour webinar included questions from members of congregations in the city who work with the Returning Citizens Assistance Network (RCAN). Questions ranged from concerns about mental health services, to how we treat children and youth in the justice system, to educational opportunities within the system. In his responses, Forman pointed to how our law and policy and culture in the 1980s and 1990s led to problems on all these fronts. “We did a whole bunch of aggressive things. We now know they aren’t good for young people and not good for communities.”

“We have an obligation to help people reach their potential as a moral matter, he said, “but it helps all of us. For every dollar we invest in education for someone who’s locked up, as a society we get $5 in return. … If we allow people to be human, then they’re more likely to succeed when they get out.”

Several organizations that work toward reform were mentioned, including the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (now known as Break Free Education), Duante Betz’ Million Book Project, and the Free Minds Book Club. You can also find lists of local and national organizations featured in the first two James Forman Jr. presentations in the recent programs section of the McClendon Scholar webpage.

The problems can be overwhelming, Forman acknowledged, but over and over again he emphasized the power of community-based solutions. In talking with a member of Emory Fellowship about writing letters to people in prison, he said:

“Please do not underestimate the power that comes from the one letter you write, those three Black Panther magazines you just sent. … One of the hardest things is believing that everyone forgot about you.”

You can access James Forman’s full presentations on our website here.

Responding to the Climate Crisis – with Karenna Gore

In the Sept. 19 McClendon Scholar webinar, A Spiritual and Moral Response to the Climate Crisis, Karenna Gore spoke with Rev. Heather Shortlidge from a wide variety of perspectives: scripture, science, grief, and communication.

Gore, who directs the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, answered questions from Rev. Shortlidge, Megan Janicki, a member of the McClendon Scholar in Residence Council, and the audience. In her answers, Gore combined statements about the stark reality of climate change with suggestions for action and with hope.

“The Earth is the Lord’s”
Her conversation with Rev. Shortlidge began with a quote from Psalm 24: “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” While we often look to Genesis for scriptural affirmation about care of the earth, Gore noted that Genesis creation stories have frequently been distorted to support property ownership and domination.

“I like Psalm 24 as a reminder that we are not God, the earth does not belong to us, we are of the earth,” she said. “This notion of separation is illusion.” In addition, she often looks to portions of scripture that address truth, power, and the idolatry of money when she addresses climate change.

Allowing Others to Join You
In one question, Rev. Shortlidge quoted Ruth Bader Ginsberg: “’Fight for the things you care about, but do so in a way that will allow others to join you.’ How do we do that?” she asked.  

In response, Gore emphasized pastoral care. The climate crisis provokes fear, anxiety and grief, even shame, which can cause people to freeze up, project, be angry or go into denial, she said. Instead of pointing to data and experts and science, she recommended we talk about observing the world around us. “If you are a person of faith … if you believe in creator and creation, what better way to be close to the creator than to observe those processes?”

She referenced Katherine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian and scientist who warns of communications that include an “underlying disdain” for others. Instead of emphasizing data, we can go to common sense language, value systems and our human ability to make change, she said. There is resistance and resentment of “experts,” who are perceived as acting “better” than others. There’s “a genuinely righteous indignation about that,” Gore noted, adding, “technology without wisdom can do terrible things.”

“I don’t have the key to brilliant communication,” she added, but everyone has a role. We can try to avoid the culture war lens. We all have to take responsibility for it. Some of the lessons we learn in our personal lives also apply in the civic space. We need to dial back the anger and have compassion for people who are not yet there.

However, Gore drew a sharp distinction between having compassion and “caving to really wealthy and powerful interests that have a stranglehold on our government.”

“Despite everything we know now, there still are people in power who want to go explore, dig, and burn more fossil fuels, including the arctic. … We need to be clear we are in this situation because of a lavishly funded lobbying and misinformation campaign.”

Learning from History and Looking Ahead
Some of the greatest moral clarity is coming from those most affected by climate change, said Gore. Union Seminary’s Center for Earth Ethics, which she founded, has included indigenous peoples in their discussions about environmental issues. One revelation for Gore has been understanding “the history of colonization as intertwined with environmental destruction,” she said, pointing to the 15th Century papal bulls that called on colonizers to “conquer, vanquish and subdue” all the flora and fauna. And “non-Christian people were part of the flora and fauna,” she said. Out of this comes white privilege, manifest destiny, property law and how we relate to nature.

Looking forward, Gore noted that the United Nations has estimated there could be as many as 200 million climate “refugees,” around the world, including in our own nation, where some have projected a migration double that of the Great Migration of the mid-20th century.

To respond,  Gore called on people of faith to be ready by returning to first principles, to the “values we hold most dear: Love your neighbor. The golden rule. Aspects of morality that are central to religious traditions. Welcome the Stranger.”

“We need to … teach these ethics and morals and the thinking behind them. … We’ve ceded a lot of our values to market-oriented things, to viewing ourselves as consumers.” Gore said. “How we behave as consumers is important, but we are more than consumers.”

Surviving the Grief
How do we keep going in the midst of so much loss? “On the other side of grief is usually love,” she said. Our grief leads us to think about what it is we cherish so much. We’re living in a time when there has been a more enforced sense of separation [from the earth] as we spend 90% of our time inside.” This has mental and physical health impacts. “So this is a chance to have a kind of awakening and renaissance.”

In addition, grief is a feeling of empathy, she added. We feel it as subjects interwoven with the earth, she said, quoting William Blake, who said “Grief and joy are woven.”

The Moral and the Practical
The fundamental question, said Gore, “is what moral obligations we owe to others across time and space and to species.” We think of what monetary resources we will leave to future generations;  “Why would you not take care of the ocean for your children and grandchildren.”

This is not work we can expect of people who are struggling to make ends meet, she said, noting that another lesson the pandemic has taught is exactly who are our essential workers. But working toward eliminating carbon emissions will actually lead to new jobs, she said, citing statistics about job growth in renewable energy. Five years ago, she said, renewable energy was cheaper in only 5% of the world. Today, it is cheaper in two-thirds of the world.

What Individuals and Congregations Can Do
Gore urged the audience to use our voices. She noted that because the topic of climate change has become politicized and because it invokes feelings of anxiety, it’s become “taboo.”

She also noted that we need systemic change to move the needle. Still, she said, individual changes  can make us more aware of the crisis, and this consciousness can affect the larger systems, and increase the likelihood of collective action. In addition, voting and fighting voter suppression are also key to the possibility of systemic change.

She encouraged congregations to look beyond solar panels and recycling programs, even though those are good things to do. She pointed to opportunities for spiritual communities to practice humility and look for opportunities for spiritual growth. She suggested that churches find out what watershed they are in, and look for ways to connect to the natural environment in a spiritually meaningful way, asking questions like: “Who are the communities near us who bear the burden of the waste of our society?” and “Who were the indigenous people here?” What were their practices?

The pandemic has shown us that it is possible to do things differently – while no one would ever call the pandemic positive, it has shifted some perceptions and led to some lifestyle changes, showing how change is possible.

Gore concluded with this advice from one of her friends in the climate movement.

Let us leave three empty chairs in every meeting we have about the climate crisis: one for people who do not usually have a voice, one for future generations, and one for our fellow creatures.

Storytelling for Survival: A Morning with Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams

Unusual tactics, unlikely allies. That’s the pattern of survival stories, said Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, our McClendon Scholar last weekend. And these stories, which push back against a traumatic reality and engage our imaginations, can help and inspire us as we navigate our lives today.

The book of Ruth is a story of survival, she said: Naomi and Ruth are unlikely partners who employ unusual tactics that lead them not only to survive, but to thrive and become part of Jesus’ genealogy.

Families tell survival stories too. Fentress-Williams told of her husband’s grandfather, Milton Benjamin Flowers. Having built a good life and land equity for his family, he applied for an educational loan. “Negroes aren’t allowed to get educational loans,” said his banker.  But Milton discovered he did qualify for a property improvement loan. And so he “improved his property” each time a child went to college. When his last child was ready for college, he again went to the bank. “Milton, what are you doing on that farm?” the banker asked. “I use the money to invest in this land for my family,” said Milton.

Milton’s story and the book of Ruth begin with trauma. In both, a short sentence tells a deep story. For Milton, the sentence is “Negroes aren’t allowed to get educational loans.” In Ruth, it’s “there was a famine in the land.” And in both, unlikely partners and unusual tactics, combined with imagination, overcome the impact of the trauma.

The power of these stories is in the telling, she said. Milton Benjamin Flowers was not Judy Fentress-Williams’ ancestor; it is not her family’s story. “But if I tell it enough times, it will eventually become mine.”

Dialogic Interpretation. For Fentress-Williams, to read the bible is to engage in dialog. What we call the bible is a collection of writings collected from different sources over an extended period of time: “The truth that it has to yield to us is a dialogic one.” The bible is in dialog with itself; and we are in dialog with the bible.

And we cannot separate our own experience from our experience with the scriptures. For example, early in the pandemic, the story of Noah’s ark was one of sanctuary for Fentress-Williams. But after George Floyd’s murder, she no longer felt she was safely on the ark. The story told a different truth: Instead of being about safety, it became a story about the need for a larger ark.

Trauma and Survival. These scriptures come to us out of the trauma of the Babylonian exile, and that should have an influence on how we read the text, she added. The exiles collected these texts to help them survive, and when we read stories in the Bible from this perspective, we can find key tips for survival in an uncertain world.

Stories of the Israelites were “told in ways that defied their experience, that pushed against reality,” said Fentress-Williams. They created a safe space for those who needed it, and they engaged the imagination, “perhaps our most important survival skill of all.”

The Gift of Imagination. She then walked us through quick readings of Exodus 1 and 2, showing how these stories push back against trauma, and engage our imaginations with unusual tactics and unlikely allies.

In Exodus 1, the extended introduction detailing  the Israelites’ oppression highlights the trauma of this story. In addition, she noted, the first violence in this story is the act of making the Israelites “other.” This act of othering comes before the enslavement, before the calls for physical violence.

But the story takes a turn, pushing back against the trauma with a short phrase that establishes an alternative reality to Pharoah’s: “But the midwives feared God.” Then the action plays out with unusual tactics and unlikely allies: The midwives align themselves with God’s reality by disobeying Pharaoh’s order to kill the Hebrew babies and lying about it – “the Hebrew women are vigorous and deliver before we arrive” – a lie Pharaoh believes because of his othering of the Hebrew people.

The survival of baby Moses in Exodus 2 also includes unusual tactics and unlikely partnerships, she pointed out. Not only does Moses’ mother put him in a basket, but the partnership of Moses’ sister Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter is certainly unlikely! This story also pushes back against Pharaoh’s reality with God’s reality. Pharaoh’s daughter saw, heard, and took pity on baby Moses. These are the same verbs that describe God’s response to the Hebrew’s cry from bondage. “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7).

Telling the Story. “So many of us are asking what we can do. One thing all of us can do is to tell the story,” Fentress-Williams concluded.

We can tell how the story of our walk with God pushes up against the realities of our day. “We will find ourselves in unlikely circumstances with unlikely partners,” she said, and we will be able to act, facilitated by our imagination.

The talk concluded with a discussion with Rev. Heather Shortlidge and a Q&A session. A full recording of the talk will be available soon at

Congregational Sunday: Mission Fair

20190929_102336Today, we celebrate your special participation in New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s Stewardship Campaign for 2019 and 2020 – what impact you have made and will make on our programs and mission.

Sometimes just a bit of history can put how we got here to this Share Fair – and to our Stewardship Campaigns each year in perspective. Philanthropy and giving can be traced all the way back to Cotton Mather in 1662 who said “Let no man pretend to the name of a Christian, who does not approve the proposal of a perpetual endeavor to do good in the world.”

Voluntary charitable organizations established by religious groups originated in the colonial era and in the mid 1700s, Benjamin Franklin “trained” early Americans in giving for charitable causes and civic benefit.

Presbyterians as a domination were a major part of colonial life as far back as the colonial war. And in 1789 during our first General Assembly, our earliest national church members emphasized the connecting nature of our church and encouraged educational, missionary, evangelical and reforming work.  Outreach mission to Native Americans, African Americans and populations all over the world became a hallmark of the church. This broadened to women’s issues civil rights and other social justice issues along with diversity in congregations.

There is an inherent belief in our core values that giving transforms the giver, making meaningful contributions in the aggregate collectively makes a real difference in the life and expressions of true partnerships and making an impact, for our church and ourselves as members of Christ’s body.

Support of our mission as manifested in our spiritual nurture to us as members each Sunday assures continuous support in our daily lives and decision making; informs and reinforces our moral compass. In tandem, our support assures that staff and volunteer solidarity and mission outreach like you see represented here are expanded.  

Giving to churches by Americans continues to be the largest sector by far of all giving, more than 31% of the total given each year. We join hundreds of thousands of other Christians in supporting so altruistically the work of Christ in our own lives and in the lives of those we serve in our community and the world.

By your gifts your dedication, your thoughtful generosity, you make a difference at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Your gifts help us open our doors every day. Your gifts help support our very special ministers, and make our wonderful choir and music program, the Radcliff Room Ministry, Community Club, Cuba Partners, McClendon Center and McClendon Scholars, and Kenya Partnership living breathing impactful and beneficial programs that touch the lives of many every week, every month.

For the Stewardship Campaign, please join with us again for 2020 in making a profound difference in the world; we are grateful for all of you who have stepped forward thus far, and who give of your time and financial resources here.  

This church – and Christ’s love and work – provide strength and spiritual sustenance in your lives. Your generous giving reciprocally to this resource that helps so many not only provides invaluable financial partnership in our programs – but also provides incalculable well-being in our own hearts and minds, each day, all year.

Laura Brouse-Long, Stewardship Co-Chair20190929_100947

Soul Justice and Social Justice: Where Do We Go From Here?

From a talk by Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist Church in Washington, DC.

The McClendon Scholar in Residence Program concluded its four-part series, Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman, on May 20 with a talk by Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist congregation in Washington, DC. Rev. Daniels took the title of his talk from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Howard Thurman’s work substantially influenced Dr. King’s thinking.

Daniels emphasized the need for deep spirituality in fighting injustice. Citing a long list of economic and employment statistics that illustrate the divide between rich and poor, between whites and black and brown people, Daniels said, “If there’s not a deep involvement in our lives with those who are cut off, then our faith means nothing.”

Sadducees, Pharisees and Zealots
“I want to be a follower of Jesus,” said Daniels, but not necessarily a “Christian”—that word has been used by too many who don’t seem to follow Jesus. He pointed to Howard Thurman, who asks: Are we Sadducees, Pharisees or Zealots?

  • Sadducees imitate the status quo, becoming like the Romans for security.
  • Pharisees stay on the sidelines, reducing contact with the enemy, keeping their resentment under rigid control.
  • Zealots resist, but with a violence that it the end “doesn’t get us anywhere.”

Instead, said Daniels, “the answer is to go deeper into our faith … through really understanding what salvation is.” Salvation comes from a Greek word meaning “to make complete or whole.” This wholeness isn’t only spiritual: It’s physical, mental, relational, emotional and financial.

Going Deep
Traditionally, the right has focused on what Daniels called soul justice, the left on social justice, but we all need both: “We need to go deep,” he said, holding his hand low across his belly. “So that how we’re living is in line with the God who is living in us.” We need to confront our own racism, sexism, fear, deceit—“to have that purged” in soul work. This is “a daily walk,” he said. Without it, “we cannot begin to go forward in a way that transforms reality.”

We must “read the gospel with those whose backs are against the wall every day.” Daniels urged prayer, silence, meditation, fellowship, scripture reading, and study. “Until we do that, we are part of the problem, not the solution.” We should ask ourselves “Is my life having influence on the lives of others in a God-transforming way?” We must “step outside our privilege” and cross boundaries. We must act “informed by the fact that Jesus served me … and by the God that’s working inside us.”

For information about upcoming McClendon Scholar in Residence Programs, go to your website.

The Spiritual Work of Prophetic People

A Talk by Rev. Bill Lamar, Metropolitan AME Church, May 6, 2017

How do we gain the strength we need to take “prophetic” action in today’s world? Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan AME Church addressed this question in his May 6 talk, the third in the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program’s four-part series, Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman. The series focuses on Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, which had a profound influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.,

In his talk Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan AME Church pointed to insights from Howard Thurman that can help us gain the strength we need to take action in today’s world. In particular, he talked about two spiritual resources that are available to all of us:

  • special places that renew us and give us a sense of the sacred, and
  • the strength of our ancestors—both our direct relatives and others who have come before us.

He gave examples of ways that Thurman drew on these resources and urged us all to do the same.

The McClendon Scholar-in-Residence Program brings scholars to Washington to speak on their most recent research and to share their learning and their vision. Established through the insight and generosity of the late Rev. Dr. Jack E. McClendon, associate minister from 1957 to 1991, the program is one fruit of Dr. McClendon’s vision that justice, service, and action can only be sustained when a community of faith grapples with profound issues and is equipped to engage in a deepening of faith. To this end, he wished to bring to the church and the larger Washington community noted scholars whose unique gifts, knowledge, and lives would inspire both ongoing reflection and action.

For more information, including our schedule of future programs, go to our website.

Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today

By Rev. Karen Brau

On Saturday, April 8, Rev. Karen Brau gave the second talk in a four part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman.”  The presentation was sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and was held at Luther Place Memorial Church.  Below are notes from that presentation.

Rev. Brau focused on lessons from Howard Thurman’s teaching that she said were directly relevant for those who work for justice today.  She gave specific examples of insights and practices that enable us to draw on the spiritual/mystical tradition that Thurman wrote and talked about.  She discussed Thurman’s emphasis on a direct experience of God and how it can sustain us, quoting Thurman’s example of people who were enslaved and told they were worthless and yet they discovered God on the inside and knew they were of worth.

Rev. Brau explained that when Howard Thurman went to India and met Gandhi, he was asked by Gandhi to sing a spiritual.  Thurman obliged by singing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and she used that as an example of how important spirituals are for tapping the religious experience. She then paused her presentation to invite Jeremy Grenhart, director of music at Luther Place, and four students from Howard University to sing several spirituals.

After the musical presentation, she summarized five specific lessons from Howard Thurman for today’s spiritual activists:

1)    Engage Spirituals—Music, especially music that is rooted in deep suffering, can help open us up to an experience of God.  In many ways, “spirituals are miracles” which can transform how we see things. Rev. Brau urged all of us to engage with spirituals on a regular basis and be open to what they can reveal.

2)    Articulate Hells—It is important to tell the truth about the suffering and evil we see around us.  Thurman talks about hell being “fear, deception and hate” and we certainly regularly see examples of all of those.  In particular, our politics seems more and more characterized by these indicators of hell and we need to be aware of and acknowledge that.  Rev. Brau also pointed out that the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon that he was to preach the Sunday after he was killed was “Why America May Go to Hell.”

3)    Love, Love, Love—There are many way in which Thurman expresses the power of love, and we need to hear his message that love is the greatest expression of the spiritual experience.  We need to focus on this type of love and practice it as regularly and fully as we can.

4)    Engage Inner Life Practice—Rev. Brau talked about various practices Thurman and other mystics have used to develop a rich inner life.  In particular, she talked about the simple power of silent prayer, reflection and meditation.  She gave an example of a “breath prayer” which can be used to calm and focus the spirit and then stopped talking and asked everyone to engage in that prayer for three minutes.  After three minutes of silence, she again spoke to the group and pointed out how regular time nurturing the inner life is so crucial.

5)    Be Mystic Activists—Rev. Brau reminded us of the challenges we face, especially in this political environment, and urged us all to be as active as possible.  She said we need to draw upon our spiritual resources and be bold in responding to the injustices we see around us.  We also need to stay in touch with other “mystic activists” to support and encourage each other.

Rev. Brau closed her presentation by summarizing these five lessons and then once again calling on the musicians who presented two more spirituals.  After the music, there was a time of brief silence and then a discussion between participants and Rev. Brau.

Mysticism, Social Action and Reconciliation

On Saturday, March 18, Rev. Lionel Edmunds gave the first talk in a four-part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman,” sponsored by New York Avenue Presbyterian’s McClendon Scholar in Residence program.



Just move on up, for peace you’ll find,

Into the steeple of beautiful people

Where there’s only one kind.

–  From the spiritual “Move on Up,” by Curtis Mayfield

 Mayfield’s lyrics “capture in song our topic today,” said Rev. Edmunds as he began his talk on the spirituality of Howard Thurman and Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Mayfield, a contemporary of Thurman’s, expresses an African American spirituality: “Our spirit is traveling in an upward way, expressed in music, dance, and also social justice. … Acts of social justice and reconciliation are spiritual acts that move us toward that beautiful steeple of beautiful people.”

For Thurman, social justice and reconciliation came from a “profound spiritual root,” said Edmunds. Thurman’s prophetic witness was an “overflow of mysticism, a response to a personal encounter with God.”

All of God’s Children Got Wings. Mysticism is a fairly recent word in Christianity, Edmunds said, noting that you won’t find the word in the bible. But it has always been a part of the faith. “It’s natural for a bird to fly and it’s natural for a Christian to be a mystic. … ‘I got wings, you got wings, all of God’s children got wings.’ Whether we use them is another thing!”

Edmunds emphasized mysticism’s connection to the world. “Some folks think mysticism means that you got God on your quick dial,” he said, and that it’s about the personal “God told me to tell you.”  But it’s connected to the political, he argued, quoting Isaiah. “In the year king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord” (Isaiah 6:1). Isaiah’s encounter with God was intertwined with what was happening in Israel’s political life.

An Overflow of Spirit. While Thurman didn’t call himself a mystic, saying the word had come into vogue after his own experiences, Edmunds noted that Thurman’s spiritual life fits the classic definition of mysticism offered by Bernard McGinn: “Mysticism is more about presence that it is about ecstatic experiences.” It’s always a process, a way of life.

Edmunds urged contemplation in silence: “At its root, prophetic activity is an overflow of what’s going on in your spirit. … Cultivate a quiet time, get in touch with your spirit, and that’s going to help in you in your activism.”  Edmunds said it takes at least 13 minutes for the body and mind to become quiet — “And you shouldn’t be listening to Morning Joe!” In addition, various tools, what Thurman called “clotheslines,” can help with distracting thoughts. Edmunds held up his own homemade rosary, and noted that words, scripture or lines from songs can be helpful.

Pray Without Ceasing. You don’t need a class, he said. “Just take the bird out of the cage, and it will fly by itself. The Spirit takes natural ascent to be in the presence of God.”  It’s about fostering an awareness that you can carry with you into your day. That’s what Paul meant by “pray without ceasing.”

Mysticism isn’t just individual; it is communal. And communities that have been oppressed “are uniquely positioned” to understand the teachings of Jesus, said Edmunds.

While Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is often called black theology, “it’s about spiritual theology that transcends black liberation. It’s human liberation,” said Edmunds. “It’s beyond feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, it’s about liberation from anything that tries to deprive me of who I am as a child of God.”


This was the first talk in a series of four sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program. Please join us for future programs!

 April 8, 10 to noon, at Luther Place Memorial Church
Rev. Karen Brau of Luther Place Memorial, Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today
 May 6, 10 to noon, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan A.M.E.,  The Spiritual Work of Prophetic People
 May 20, 10 to noon, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory United Methodist, Where Do We Go From Here?