On March 19, Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church on E. Henry St. will offer a rare public viewing of the brand-new documentary film “Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story.”
The movie, which profiles the life and legacy of Thurman, an immensely respected Christian philosopher and publicity-shy influencer in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, will be followed by a unique live panel discussion, which brings together a handful of local religious leaders of different faiths to speak about the role that Thurman’s teachings can play in today’s increasingly divisive and antagonistic society.
This event, which is open to the general public, is indicative of the type of even-handed outreach this well-respected house of worship has become known for in the quarter of a century since its congregation underwent a shift in direction toward a more positive and inclusive brand of Protestant Christianity.
In anticipation of this unique and noteworthy undertaking, I spoke with Asbury’s Rev. Billy Hester about the idea behind the screening and accompanying panel discussion, which will be followed by a reception in the church’s Social Hall. Our conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity, follows.
Do: How exactly did this screening come about?
Hester: “I’ve often quoted Howard Thurman in my sermons, but I discovered that not many people knew who he was. So, I started learning more and more about him and became more and more impressed by him and his teachings. I learned of this new film about Thurman and shared it with one of my church members, Helen Downing. She took the initiative to find out how to offer a public viewing of the documentary.”
Do: I know that Asbury regularly puts on stage plays, but is this the first event of this type at the church?
Hester: “Yes, this is the first time we’ve sponsored the showing of a film followed up with a panel discussion.”
Do: Have you seen the film?
Hester: “Yes, I viewed it because we didn’t want to encourage the public to attend something if it wasn’t done well. They did a good job with it. It runs about an hour, so it leaves time for a discussion afterwards. Any longer and that would have been difficult.”
Do: Do you have any direct personal connection to Howard Thurman? What are your thoughts on his teachings?
Hester: “I became familiar with Howard Thurman’s work because of a growing interest I had in ‘centering prayer,’ which is a method of prayer and meditation that places emphasis on stillness and silence. I wanted to learn more about it because it is a great technique for dealing with stress and difficulties.
“Then as I started learning more about him, I realized he was an extraordinary human being who changed history. And that his teachings have so much to offer our troubled world today. Apparently, the people who made this new documentary thought the same things.”
Do: For readers unfamiliar with his accomplishments and legacy, how would you describe Thurman's importance in contemporary society?
Hester: “It has been said that Howard Thurman ‘changed the people that changed the world.’ What a lot of people don’t realize is that there may not have been a non-violent Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s without the influence of Thurman. He was Dr. King’s mentor. Thurman went to India and met with Mahatma Gandhi. They talked about the importance of making change in society through powerful movements that were non-violent.
“In 1949, he wrote a book called ‘Jesus and the Disinherited’ which radically demonstrated how the teachings of Jesus could be experienced through the eyes of the oppressed and disenfranchised. It discusses non-violent responses to oppression. I understand that Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement kept a copy of 'Jesus and the Disinherited' with them.
“I believe Thurman still can make a great impact on the world in many ways. Take race relations, for instance. He was the first minister to intentionally develop a church that had both black and white members worshiping together. Also, the centering prayer he so encouraged can greatly help us in how we respond to others and how we treat them. He also was very much into nature. He talked to trees. His understanding of nature has a lot to offer us as we seek to be more environmentally conscious.
Do: Asbury Memorial UMC describes itself as "a Christ-centered, forward-thinking, all-embracing congregation that celebrates the joy of God creatively and is committed to remaining a welcoming and affirming congregation for all." How might that mission relate to Thurman’s outlook and message?
Hester: “I feel a special kinship with Howard Thurman. I feel he would love Asbury Memorial because we seek to be a welcoming, all-inclusive congregation. We’re also a very creative bunch. And in my research, I discovered Howard Thurman was one of the first to develop liturgical dance in worship. Plus, we are trying to emphasize centering prayer more and more.
Do: After the film, you will host a multi-faith panel of respected community leaders to speak on issues raised by the documentary. That panel includes Rabbi Robert Haas, Imam Ibrahim Abdul-Malik, Rev. Thurmond Tillman, Rev. Claire Marich and Rev. Kathleen Roberson. Can you explain how and why each was selected?
Hester: “I’m so glad Rabbi Haas and Imam Abdul-Malik can join us, because I think it’s always a good idea to get the perspectives of people from other faiths. Plus, the three of us have become friends and annually do a Tri-Faith Service every year at Congregation Mickve Israel.
“Rev. Claire Marich is fairly new to Savannah. She is a United Methodist minister from Chicago who has blessed us with her work at Asbury and Savannah. She, too, is a part of the Savannah Alliance of Pastors. And Rev. Kathleen Roberson, who is from Philadelphia, is also very new to Savannah. I’m very excited about her being part of this event because she is our neighbor – her church, True Light Pentecostal Church, is right across the street from Asbury Memorial.”
Do: What responses have you received from folks who’ve heard about the screening?
Hester: “Actually, it’s been challenging to market because surprisingly a lot of people don’t know who Howard Thurman was. He did so much of his work in the shadows… He did not have to be in the limelight. That’s another lesson for our culture — especially in religion and politics.
Do: Do interested readers need to reserve a seat to this screening?
Hester: “People do not need to reserve a seat. The viewing will be in our sanctuary and it seats 500. So there’s plenty of room. And there is no admission fee.
Do: What would you add to convince someone to attend this event?
Hester: “I believe this is a great opportunity for us to learn about someone who can help each person individually and help us collectively as a society. There are a lot of things in our world and in our lives that are broken. This, wise sage, Christian mystic, theologian, pastor ̶ — or whatever you want to call him — has a lot to offer us for health and wholeness.”