Ps. 139: Dean Thurman and Reb Zalman
July 1, 2020
Howard Washington Thurman (1899-1981) was a towering figure in American religious and civic life. A distinguished African American educator, preacher, theologian, and communal leader, he played a key role in the Civil Rights movement and was a pioneer in interreligious and cross-cultural engagement. Among his many accomplishments was the introduction of a spirituality of nonviolence into the American activist scene, following an historic encounter with Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders in India in 1934. Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) became a foundational text for many Civil Rights activists, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurman also served as a pastoral guide to several prominent movement leaders, including King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, and Pauli Murray.
Rev. Thurman served as the first dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University (1932-1944) and as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University (1953 to 1965). He was the first black dean of a chapel at a majority-white university or college in the United States. Between these two university appointments, Thurman, who was ordained as a Baptist minister, co-founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, one of the first interracial and interdenominational churches in the United States. After leaving Boston University in 1965, Thurman continued his work as a writer and preacher, and established the Howard Thurman Educational Trust in San Francisco. He passed away in 1981. Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, a fellow activist, writer, and founder of the Aframerican Woman’s Journal, died in 1996.
Howard Thurman also played a pivotal role in the genesis or pre-history of the PsalmSeason project. How is that possible given that we launched this interreligious initiative just a month ago, long after his death? The answer lies in the following story…
In 1955, a young Rabbi Zalman Schachter (Shalomi, 1924-2014)1 enrolled in Boston University’s graduate school to study the Psychology of Religion. Among the first people he met on campus was Howard Thurman—although he had no idea who Thurman was when they initially met. Schachter stumbled into Marsh Chapel early one morning looking for a place to davven (pray). A Hasidic rabbi, he was quite hesitant about praying in a Christian house of worship, but he could not find another available space in which to pray the Shaharit (Morning) service at that hour.
To make a long story short, Dean Thurman caught sight of the young rabbi standing in one of the public spaces (the memorabilia room) in the building draped in his tallit (prayer shawl) and wrapped in his tefillin (prayer boxes placed on the forearm and head), quietly chanting from his prayer book. After engaging in a brief conversation, in which Reb Zalman expressed his discomfort praying in the formal worship spaces adorned with Christian iconography, Rev. Thurman responded by preparing a special place for the rabbi to davven (without revealing who he was). The following morning, the Dean ushered his new student into a small chapel on the lower level of the building. To Schachter’s surprise the space had been reconfigured: Revered Thurman removed the large brass cross from the front of the room, and adorned the lectern with large candle sticks and an ornate Bible opened to Psalm 139—“Wither shall I flee from Thy presence?!”
Without saying a word, Dean Thurman communicated clearly to the rabbi that the latter was a welcome guest in this “foreign” house of worship. The chapel would need to be reset for Christian worship, but for that one hour of the day (and on subsequent mornings) the room was reorganized to help the young rabbi come in contact with God’s holy and inescapable presence—“Wither shall I flee from Thy presence?!” In response to this gracious act of interreligious hospitality, before leaving the room Schachter returned the cross to its place and turned the Bible from Psalm 139 (Thurman’s favorite biblical text) to Psalm 100—a psalm of thanksgiving.
This story, and the larger story of the close relationship these two mystical seekers developed over many years, has served as a source of inspiration to me since I first learned about it twenty years ago. It has become a sacred text for me, helping to ground my interreligious and inter-group work. Among the many things I learned directly from my teacher, Reb Zalman (a less formal title Schachter preferred), and indirectly from his teacher, Dean Thurman (whom the rabbi lovingly referred to as his “black rebbe,” spiritual master), is the transformative power of exploring sacred texts like the Psalms with people who care about such sources and who interpret and enact them differently than I do.
Thank you, Dean Thurman.
Listen here to Rev. Thurman speak briefly about his love for psalm 139 and recite verses 1-18. We wish to thank the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center of Boston University for the use of this audio file.
1This week marks the sixth anniversary of Rabbi Schachter’s passing (July 3, 2014). May his memory serve as a source of inspiration and blessing.
American Civic Life