Book Review: What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman
Publication Date: Feb 07, 2023
List Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover, 213 pages
Imprint: Broadleaf Books
Publisher: 1517 Media
Parent Company: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
This was a labor of love. Over seven years ago, it was the mission of Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown, a Harvard-trained professor emerita of psychology at Agnes Scott College, to write about a “holy person who spoke to her soul.” Her interest in spirituality was fueled by reading Catholic mystics such as St. Theresa, St. John, Thomas Merton, Quaker mystics George Fox, Thomas Kelly, and Sufi writers Rumi and Hafiz. However, the contest ended with the legendary achievements of African American spiritual seeker Howard Thurman, resulting in the book What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk With Howard Thurman.
Not many in our community knew the significance of Thurman on the civil rights campaign with his counseling of such titans as Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, and John Lewis. Scholars recognized his value in linking the love of God and the needs of the common man in seeking a life of profound meaning and serenity.
Brown, ever the insightful scholar, touches the foundations of Thurman’s reflective, mystical wisdom, secure in his tools of silence, solitude, and stillness. His message is quiet, accessible, and practical in the chaotic modern world.
“Don’t ask what the world needs,” Thurman writes. “Ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”
Why Howard Washington Thurman? Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, he spent his childhood in Waycross, one of the city’s all-black communities. He learned the word of God from his maternal grandmother, who worked on a plantation, along with his mother, both members of a Baptist church. His father died of pneumonia when the child was only seven years old. Following the completion of eighth grade, he went to the Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville, one of only three high schools for Blacks in Florida. In 1923, he graduated from Morehouse College as valedictorian, and two years later, he was ordained as a minister at First Baptist Church in Roanoke.
For two years, Thurman served as pastor of another church in Oberlin, Ohio. His reputation was enhanced by his work on the faculty of the Howard University School of Divinity from 1932 to 1944. The foreign travel broadened when he headed various Christian missions to meet with important world personalities, including Mahatma Gandhi, who quizzed him about the human rights struggle of the Black community. Later, he became the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 – 1965. Following his tenure there, he continued writing, producing twenty books on theology, culture, and philosophy.
As Brown probed the effects of reflection and influences of Thurman, she delved into his six-month pilgrimage to India, Ceylon, and Burma, where she returns to the intense three-hours talk with Gandhi about civility, non-violent disobedience, compassion, duty, accountability, and reconciliation. Upon its conclusion, King and his wife met Thurman socially and the minister carried a Thurman book, Jesus and the Disinherited every time he marched.
Also, Brown mentioned the work Thurman did with the Quakers and their practice of silence and inner reflection to achieve a powerful effect on life:
Silence, silence. And in that silence, I felt as though all of them were on one side and I was on the other side, by myself, with my noise… And then… I don’t know when it happened, how it happened, I wish I could tell you, but somewhere in that hour I passed over the invisible line, and I became one with all the seekers… I was a human spirit involved in a creative moment with human spirits, in the presence of God.
Thurman loved nature, sunrises, and sunsets, especially the trees. He saw the Divine in all things. He wanted people to see themselves in all the creations of God. He also wanted the faithful to pass along their faith to their young, so they would gift them with hope and achievement rather than despondency and despair. The concept of illness, the loss of a loved one, or disappointment in life would mean only a pause but then the opportunity to see ourselves in a new way.
At the heart of everything, Brown penetrated the cultural schism that still separates our society when Thurman spoke about the betrayal of the leaders and some in the church turning their back on the Good Book. “If we accept the general proposition that all life is one arising out of a communal center: God, all expressions of love are acts of God. Hate, then, becomes a form of annihilation of self and others – in short, suicide. Violence is animal and atheistic because it denies the unity of life and defeats its maintenance of and furthermore on the highest levels. It is for this reason that hatred and bitterness, self-violating as they seem to be, in the last analysis are apt to destroy both the hated and the hater.”
In speaking of the current global situation, Thurman, thinking of Jesus living as a poor and marginalized Jew in Palestine and of American Blacks living as the most disinherited people in post-Jim Crow America, wrote that these people should not worship or depend on their oppressors. He wanted his people to not be disenfranchised, vulnerable, disrespected, and lacking a sense of self. He noted that Jesus taught people the three hounds that haunted the disinherited: fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. These things, Thurman added, defeat the joy and spirituality of a full life.
In summing up, Thurman concluded:
The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being. It may be, I don’t know, that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one’s fellows as human beings… To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in the world.
The title of this book reveals a feast of divine instruction centered on the wisdom and insightful knowledge of this spiritual seeker and activist Howard Thurman. This book gives off an energy that is healing, brilliant, often redemptive. We need to know this in this maddening twenty-first world.