Explaining a Segregated Playground: Dr. Howard Thurman's Love for His Daughters

Later this morning, I will be preaching at First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Chelmsford.  I will post the sermon later.  This is, however, the Conversation with the Children, that I will be having before the younger ones leave worship service for religious education. 

I LOVE interacting with the little ones as part of worship.  The church I am currently serving has one child who comes sometimes, so I relish the chance to talk with a group of children, to tell a story, to engage their hearts and minds.  While communicating with the Director of RE about this morning’s service, which is taking place at a church I have never visited, she described that the students are “in the middle of Prophetic Words and Deed/Transforming Love workshops and our older grades usually spin off from their topic.”

As soon as I read that, I knew what story would be at the center of my Conversation with the Children: a story I read in the autobiography of Dr. Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart.  Now, if you have not heard of Dr. Thurman, it’s time you have.   I have been perusing the course offerings of UU-related seminaries and it seems that each one has a course dedicated to him – even though he wasn’t a UU!   I was fortunate enough to take a course in his essential writings at my seminary with Professor Ben Watts.  That course included reading Dr. Thurman’s work and developing a spiritual aspect of the readings into our ministry, whatever we understood our ministry to be.

Howard Thurman is arguably the most important African American Christian theologian of the twentieth century.  He was born in 1899 and died in 1981.  He was a prolific writer, an ordained Baptist minister, and a mystic.  He met with Gandhi and he changed the face of worship in this country, co-founding the first multi-racial congregation, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in 1944.  He was a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Sr. and a mentor to Dr. King, Jr.  In fact, when Dr. King was stabbed by an mentally unstable woman in 1958. Dr. Thurman went to be of pastoral care and counsel.

When I read the relevant passage in the book, laying on the couch in my living room, I gasped outloud.  I gasped at the power of love in these father’s words.  I gasped at the righteous perspective of injustice, how the might of big, overwhelming institutions standing on the wrong side of history can be made small in the frame of what is just, what is true, that is – let us call it what it is – holy.

Conversation for Children: Dr. Thurman, His Daughters, and a Playground

What if we were taking a walk and then we came upon this playground?  Do you think you would like to play on it?  How would you feel if I told you that you can’t play on the playground, that it was only for people who look different than you, who have different color skin?

How many of you have heard of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?  I bet it won’t surprise you to know that Dr. King had both a father (Martin Luther King Sr) and he had teachers/ mentors – people who helped him learn and grow.  Just like you.  One of his mentors, a man the same age as his father, was Dr. Howard Thurman.  This is a photo of Dr. Howard Thurman.  I think in this photo he looks very kind.  What do you think?

Dr. Thurman grew up in Dayton Beach, Florida at a time when there was segregation: an unfair set of laws that said people with darker colored skin were not allowed to do the same things as people with lighter colored skin.   This meant that African Americans were not allowed to eat in certain restaurants, or swim in public swimming pools, or play on some playgrounds.

Dr. Thurman had two daughters, whom he loved very much.  Dr. Thurman raised his daughters in Washington, DC, and Boston, where there weren’t official rules that kept people apart based on skin color.  One time, Dr. Thurman and his family went to visit where he grew up – he wanted his daughters to see all the things from his childhood, meet people important to him.  While they were on a walk, they came upon a playground attached to a public school for white children.  Naturally, his daughters wanted to swing on the swings. But the unfair law of segregation did not allow it. 

He faced a very difficult situation of explaining this to his children.  This is what he said,

“It is against the law for us to use those swings, even though it is a public school.  At present, only white children can play there.  But it takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida – it takes all these to keep two little black girls from swinging in those swings.  That is how important you are!  Never forget, the estimate of your own importance and self-worth can be judged by how many weapons and how much power people are willing to use to control you and keep you in the place they have assigned you.  You are two very important little girls.  Your presence can threaten the entire state of Florida.”

Wow!  In the face of that unjust law, that father made sure that his little girls did not feel like they had done anything wrong, but that they were, in fact, really powerful.   This story reminds me that how we tell stories is really important and has a big impact on how we see the world and what is possible in it.

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