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Essay: The World Needs People Who Have Come Alive.

By Don Stouder

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman

Only a few days left until we roar into a New Year, 2021. As we extricate ourselves from the dumpster fire that has been this past year, I want to talk a little about redemption, as in how to we make this past year mean something. I want to do it through the biographical lens of a man who many called the “mentor” to our modern civil rights movement. His name was Howard Thurman, and not only was he a mentor to Martin Luther King, he also founded the first fully interfaith church; not in the 60’s when you would think that sort of thing would be happening but in the forties, in the middle of a world war. His story is exciting to share, his words will move you right to your core, and his vision of The Work of Christmas has the power to lift you into a New Year with purpose and passion.

Like a lot of people, I have always had a love/hate relationship with the holiday season. My mother was a drinker and a smoker and a little crazy most of the time, but boy could she pull off the holidays in amazing style. Growing up, I felt like the holiday season carried nostalgia and poignancy and magic, but I would later find out there was another side to my emotional attachment. My oldest brother died on Christmas Eve in 1993, and as a paramedic and hospital chaplain, I would come to find that some pretty terrible tragedies happened on Christmas Eve and Day. I also thought I found God in Junior High School, watching a full moon in a snow covered field on Christmas Eve; proposed to my first partner on Christmas Eve, and retired from the University of California San Diego on Christmas Eve, so as you can see I have some pretty rich psychological material wrapped up…pardon the pun….in December 24th.

The year I retired, 2015, my husband and I set off for the Palm Springs area from where we lived in San Diego. The idea was to do some dog-and-house-sitting and hang out with friends for about 10 days. Before we left we had a lovely Christmas weekend, having cooked a killer Christmas Eve dinner that I was particularly proud of. On Christmas Day, after watching the grandkids and adults open presents, we packed up and headed for the desert.

That week had begun my first official week of retirement from a full-time position at UC San Diego. At first it felt just like an ordinary holiday vacation, but after a few days I started to feel a different sort of change. I thought about work less and less; there were far fewer emails to keep track of, and of course I worried and obsessed less about things I should be doing. Most friends and family had advised me to take some time off, to de-tox, to not worry about “what’s next” too quickly. That was a hard sell for me. In my first 5 days of retirement before we left for Palm Springs, I interviewed with a local university that wanted me to join their adjunct faculty, and interviewed twice with a small-but-growing Hospice Program that wanted me as a part-time chaplain. I had also reached out to my friends in the organ donation world, hoping to build a training and consulting practice. So much for rest and relaxation.

Of course I knew these things would happen, as I never really intended to “retire”. I expect I will work till I’m dead, and that is really fine with me. I am bored easily and want to continue to make a contribution. And it’s not like a career in public service has made me independently wealthy; I have a small pension and healthcare from UCSD but I will always need to supplement that. And, as my husband often reminds me, I am not in this alone.

It seems to me that, even as I tried to slow down a little and reflect, what I really wanted to do was honor the memory of the people who have allowed me to be a part of their final journey to Whatever Comes Next, as well as their families who allowed me to briefly walk with them during what was surely among the worst moments of their lives. My forty-plus year career in health care has included EMT volunteer, Paramedic, Firefighter Volunteer, EMS Educator, AIDS Chaplain, ICU and Emergency Room Chaplain, Chaplain for an organ donation organization, and Trauma Chaplain again at a Palm Springs hospital. My patients were and are often dead or dying, and their families in extreme crisis. Something in my DNA allows me to be at my very best in these situations, and my very best is pretty good. I hope I helped; I hope it mattered; I hope they all knew that I considered it the privilege of a lifetime to be standing next to them in those sacred spaces and moments.

I remember wanting to construct a ritual of some kind, to remember the names of every person and family, maybe say them out loud and lay a rose in some beautiful place for each. It has been too many years and too many names for me to do that. But there was a moment, after we arrived here in the desert on that Christmas evening, when I looked up at a clear night sky full of stars and imagined that they represented those people and those families. I got a little teary-eyed, and I just whispered “thank you”.

This story is part of what I mean when I say “the work of Christmas”. It’s what Howard Thurman meant, too. “Because he talks to us about our lives.” That was the response of the late attorney, civil-rights activist and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan when asked why she, along with many of her classmates, faculty and staff and related others, frequented the classroom and school chapel to hear Howard Thurman during her collegiate tenure at Boston University in the late 1950s. Born of her own experience, Jordan’s words speak to and for the experience of many others from a variety of social, spiritual, ethnic and political backgrounds who were and are drawn to Thurman on account of both his biographical method of communication as well as his glorious, life-affirming theology.

This method was intentional. Thurman consistently employed the concept of an individual’s “working paper” throughout his career in reference to a person’s life narrative. He argued that each individual’s “paper” revealed a unique “creative synthesis”. Further, Thurman frequently integrated autobiographical episodes from his own lived experience into his sermons, lectures, poetry and other writings. Enabling the introduction of practical object lessons and an invitation to greater intimacy to his audience, this device also rendered Thurman’s ministry of the word an ever-ready vehicle of self-confrontation, discovery, and growth.

Howard Washington Thurman was born Sunday, November 18, 1900 into a family living the life of the black working poor in Waycross, a ghetto just outside of Daytona, Florida. His father Saul’s work laying track for the Florida East Coast Railroad kept him away from home for weeks on end, leaving Thurman and his sisters, Henrietta and Madeline, in the care of their mother Alice and maternal grandmother Nancy Ambrose. Saul died of tuberculosis in 1907, necessitating Alice’s fiscal support of the family through cleaning and cooking for white families in Daytona and Ambrose’s role as the children’s primary caregiver.

During his Waycross years Thurman leveraged the fusion of awe, welcome and love gained through family, nature and religion against the chronic despair of his social status as a “black.” The limits on African Americans’ social mobility under Jim Crow, evinced in their ghettoization, saw Thurman, like his peers, grow up largely numb to white people, neither “loving nor hating them.” The few times family errands or his part-time jobs placed Thurman in “white Daytona” most of his interactions with whites were void of “fellowship” — a term he later identified with interpersonal intimacy and mutual understanding. “Whites” had little presence in Thurman’s early moral reality; as he later wrote, “they were simply out of bounds.”

Thurman’s recollections of the regular interracial contact that did occur, both in his autobiography With Head and Heart and his analysis of Jim Crow culture, The Luminous Darkness: An Anatomy of Segregation and the Ground of Hope, reveal the extent to which the trials of his childhood imprinted themselves upon his adult psyche. His memory of an afternoon raking leaves for a white couple, is particularly telling. Each leaf-pile Thurman raked together was immediately scattered by the couple’s five-year old daughter, who was oblivious of Thurman in her search for the yard’s brightest leaf. He picks up the story here:

“Each time she did this, I would have to rake the leaves into a pile again. This grew tiresome, and it doubled my work. Finally, I said to her in some desperation, “Don’t do that anymore because I don’t have time.” She became very angry and continued to scatter the leaves. “I’m going to tell your father about this when he comes home,” I said. With that, she lost her temper completely and, taking a straight pin out of her pinafore, jabbed me in the hand. I drew back in pain, “Have you lost your mind?” I asked. And she answered, “Oh, Howard, that didn’t hurt you! You can’t feel!”

This temporary wound, though painful in and of itself, only scratched the surface of segregation’s chronic violence enacted upon an African-American boy in the Jim Crow South. Thurman deduced the toxic nature of segregation in his childhood, naming it as “an attitude, a disease, which destroys the society in which it exists” and perplexes the oppressed unto self-rejection. He went on to say, “What does it mean to grow up with a cheap self-estimate? There is a sentence I copied many years ago, the source of which I have forgotten: we were despised so long at last we despised ourselves.”

Man or woman, gay or transgendered, person of color, deaf, blind, wheelchair bound, immigrant, poor, homeless, mentally ill………there are a lot of people I know and have known that can relate to the idea of being despised so long that at last we despised ourselves. I like to imagine that it was right about that time, because that’s how it happened in my own life, when Howard Thurman decided that he was having none of it.

He found time to be a mentor to Martin Luther King, as he had been a friend to King’s father when they attended Morehouse College together. He worked and lectured and wrote books and essays right up until his death in 1981, and there isn’t a single book he left behind that you shouldn’t read. He was a Baptist through and through, and a man of his times so his choice of language was hardly inclusive. But just listen to how it makes music in your heart:

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

Here is another:

“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish thinker and teacher appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men.’ Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”

I was tricked into a life of service to others through no fault of my own, I assure you. I wanted to be a banker or a stock broker or a doctor or something for Christ’s sake besides a handful of occupations that were guaranteed to bring me deep personal fulfillment while subjecting me to upper middle class poverty, by which I mean not as rich as the guys I went to school with in suburban New Jersey. But it was a conspiracy in my case, the definition of which I will not bore you with as it is repeated to us hourly on cable and network news since the election of 2016.

No, in my case it was a conspiracy of people just like Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter, and even my father. He belonged to the local volunteer ambulance squad, which I have to tell you was pretty cool as a kid. I mean imagine that you are 10 years old when some bell or beeper goes off in your house, and your father pulls on a white jumpsuit and runs out the door, speeding off down your suburban street with a flashing blue light on the roof of your 1969 Rambler Ambassador Station Wagon. I was HOOKED. But there was something else that hooked me.

I was maybe 12 or 13 when I found a copy of the Volunteer Ambulance Squad’s training manual on the living room table one afternoon. I was so interested in reading it that I opened it immediately; that of course led me down a path that had me riding an ambulance as an EMT, with my father, at 16 years old and that continues right up to this day. But what really stuck me about that manual was what appeared on the very first page, nicely centered with pretty italics. It was a short but well-known story, about a guy who is hiking along a remote road when he gets accosted, robbed, and beaten within an inch of his life and left for dead.

Because he looks homeless, some fairly important people from his village, including a minister, walk by on the opposite side of the street because they want nothing to do with him. Then someone else comes along and sees the man. He recognizes him as from a bad neighborhood, but he simply doesn’t care. He also doesn’t care that the guy is black or brown or gay or an atheist or poor or undocumented or whatever. He comforts him, gives him some water and a little make-shift first aid, lifts him up on his horse, takes him to a Bed and Breakfast, and pays the innkeeper to take care of him.

The story, of course, is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, from the Gospel according to Luke. I have never, ever forgotten the impact that story had on me then and has on me still, and I am convinced that it is because of its basic ethical simplicity. Religious liberals like me have made an industry out of making things more complicated than they have to be, while prophets like Howard Thurman spend lifetimes trying to show us what a decent human being looks like.

The famous quote about the work of Christmas, attributed to the Reverend Dr. Howard Thurman, isn’t a quote, it’s a potential life narrative; it isn’t a quote, it’s a manifesto; it isn’t a quote, it’s an ethical imperative; it isn’t a quote, it’s a miracle.

“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.” Howard Thurman

This essay was originally delivered as a sermon to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert in Rancho Mirage, California on December 30, 2018.


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