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Reflecting with Howard Thurman

June 25, 2015

Despite all that has been said about the pattern of segregation in our society, it is my conviction that time is against it. In fact, much of the current effort to hold the line may be viewed as a back-against-the-wall endeavor. The more the world becomes a neighborhood in which time and space are approaching zero as a limit, the more urgent becomes the issue of neighborliness. Man can now circle the entire earth’s surface in a matter of minutes. Communication is now instant! This means that the external symbols of segregation-the wall, the ghetto, the separate locale as a mandatory restriction binding upon groups of people because of race, color, creed, or national origin-cannot survive modern life. The emphasis here is upon the two words “external symbols.” When I suggest that time is against the pattern of segregation, I am referring to the symbols. The walls are crumbling-this is one of the dramatic facts of our world. The fact itself is very frightening to many who have lived always behind the walls, within the walls, or beyond the walls. It is deeply disturbing also to those who have found the existence of the walls essential to their own peace, well-being, and security. Out of sight, out of mind-this can no longer be the case.” -Howard Thurman [1]

Even though Thurman was wrote this passage in the 1960’s it contains much wisdom for today. I’m reading it today in the midst of calls for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. I hope that flag is removed. But I also hope that the removal does not end the conversation about what that flag represents. We must still acknowledge the depths of racism and white supremacy in this country and work to uproot it. Otherwise we will still fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” mindset that Thurman called for an end of. Even if symbols and walls crumble, what remains are the underlying anxieties and root causes behind those structures. On those realities we must stay focused.

I really like Thurman’s phrase, “the world becomes a neighborhood.” As I read that line I was reminded of the neighborhood where I grew up, where my parents still live. Today, many of my parents’ neighbors hail from places such as Egypt, Bangladesh, India, and Laos. The neighborhood’s library of religious faith-once consisting largely of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism-now also includes Hinduism, Islam, and Coptic Orthodox Christianity (and perhaps more). When I visit, I notice the tremendous amount of hospitality and care shown from one neighbor to another. People are becoming friends and learning from one another there. The “neighborliness” that is developing there gives me hope.


[1] Schaper, Donna, and Howard Thurman. 40-day Journey with Howard Thurman (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2009), 88.


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