Leaning Against Trees

Today’s post is by Melanie Weldon-Soiset

One cloudy Friday this past March, eight Sojourners fellows and I gathered in my DC living room to seek divine presence. We participated in the Howard Thurman Retreat Day, an online opportunity with Shalem. Lerita Coleman Brown facilitated reflections for us about Howard Thurman’s life and teachings, reflections that aided our ability to lean against God’s bosom in rest.

As I write my own reflection here on a sunny summer day, and look at the linden tree in my neighbor’s yard, I imagine a young Howard Thurman leaning against its stately trunk. I’m unsure if the future Dean of Chapel at Boston University also enjoyed the small, bell-shaped blooms whose sweet fragrance is currently wafting in my window. I now know, however, that the strength Thurman drew from reclining against such arboreal bosoms sustained him throughout his life.

Thurman isn’t the only one to notice the peace that comes from such forested reveries. As Elyn MacInnis explains in her book Character Reflections, the first character in the Chinese word for rest, “休息(xiuxi),” is a person leaning against a tree. “If we truly rest our physical self and refrain from action,” MacInnis observes, “our outer motion stops, and then our inner motion, our thoughts, become more noticeable.” Whether knowingly or not, Thurman made a distinctly Asian equation between resting and leaning against trees.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the Howard University professor felt drawn to Asia, where he explored nonviolent resistance with Mahatma Gandhi in India. As Coleman Brown explains, one setback after another plagued Thurman’s attempts to meet with Gandhi. When the two public figures finally did meet, however, their brief encounter proved to be monumental.

Gandhi and Thurman agreed that the injustices they saw in their respective countries actually started within each individual. Injustice had disordered its victims internally, severing the crucial connection between the private and public realms of peacemaking. Fourteen years after his time in India, Thurman would conclude in his landmark book Jesus and the Disinherited that Jesus “announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”

At the end of that cloudy March Friday, the fellows commented on the power of the silence built into the retreat. We yearned to join Thurman at one of the worship services he led at his church in San Francisco, services that included extended time of silence. Though we could not travel in time and space to worship with him on the West Coast, we nonetheless ended our retreat time in similar stillness. That silence grounded us in the same teaching that Thurman’s grandmother gave him over a century ago: we, like Thurman, were first and foremost children of God. We, like Thurman, could then experience a stabilized ego and renewed courage to face the racist chaos around us. Thanks be to God.

July 07, 2019 by Melanie Weldon-Soiset
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