I was a very young seminarian in 1979 when I first heard that there was such a thing as the Black Seminarians Conference. My classmate, Leroy Sanders, and I wanted to attend this event in Atlanta, Georgia, so we approached our president, Dr. Charles Shelby Rooks, to request financial support. After a verbal thrashing for our lack of planning and the necessity of budgeting such trips, Dr. Rooks approved our request, and we both headed to Atlanta.
There I heard a man who changed my life. Vincent Harding gave a lecture that first day that left me in emotional pieces; I was virtually in tears. I remember both Leroy and my new friend, Jim Stallings, asking me if I was all right. Plainly, for several days, I was not. The impression that Dr. Harding had on me was like the soldier’s report after being sent to arrest Jesus: “We could not arrest him because never a person spake like this” (paraphrase of John 7:46, KJV). I had never before heard anyone articulate my deepest feelings and deepest longings. It was his compassion for people, concern for a just and humane world, and the love of God in people that touched me. He lived and taught a spirituality that was larger than the usual tribal gods so many others promote and serve. He lived and taught a spirituality larger than one tribe or nation, one that he so often named “religion and social transformation.” I was forever changed.
After the conference, I made contact with Dr. Harding, and we developed a friendship. He was generous with his time, responding to my novice and naïve questions with patience. He and his wife Rose were guests in our home, and I spent time with them in Denver, Colorado. I remember the conferences he hosted with people from around the country. They were usually eclectic gatherings of social justice and mystical types who once entered into intense conflict during a conference. The issue was the role of women in ministry, and the room was divided. Not all of the men, but many of the men in the room, did not support the full equality of women in ministry. I supported full equality but remained quiet while the women in the room challenged the patriarchy. Prathia Hall spoke to me after the meeting and told me that my silence was a betrayal of my own belief and that if I thought women were to be equals, then I must speak. The movement for equality needed men to stand up and speak just like it needed women. She called me on my silence, and the next day I stepped up.
I remember when Dr. Harding sat me down and invited me to attend Iliff School of Theology for their PhD program in religion and social transformation. I had been a pastor for seven years, and it would have meant leaving my church and moving my family to Denver. I weighed the options seriously, and on the plane ride home, I sat next to Charles Gilchrist Adams, the great preacher and pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church of Detroit, Michigan. I confided in Dr. Adams about the invitation. He asked me: “How much do you love preaching? And how would you get a chance to really work and develop your preaching if you left the pulpit and did not preach every Sunday?” It was settled right then and there—I loved preaching, and I wanted passionately to grow and develop my preaching. As I look back now that I am a professor of preaching, Dr. Harding’s invitation was a defining moment in my ministry.
I remember when we built the first building at my first church. I invited Dr. Harding to deliver the dedicatory sermon. After it was all over, he asked me a question that rankled my soul: “How much energy does it take to build this kind of institution from virtually nothing?” I had no frame of reference to understand his question. He was talking to me about longevity in ministry, rest for my spirit, and that elusive balance between pastoral life and home life. I could not consider such questions then. I was caught up in the rhythm of meeting the next goal. There was no time for rest; there was only meeting the next challenge. He was asking me about the preservation of my soul. However, six years later, I understood; in a fog of weariness and exhaustion, I had decided to leave that congregation. I had burned myself out.
I remember the celebration of Rose Harding’s life. I took my family, and during the open comments, my wife and I were amazed to see my daughter rise and walk to the microphone. She was touched so deeply by the testimonies to Rose Harding she was hearing, that she decided to tell about the beautiful effect of the Harding family on our own family. It was our first inkling that this young lady of nine years had voice. We were not sure how it happened, but she amazed the room. This young girl had voice.
I remember hearing Dr. Harding’s insights on Martin Luther King Jr. He was a friend, confidant, and speech writer to King. He helped me understand King’s speech at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam.” Eventually I wrote my dissertation on King’s speeches in the last year of his life, and Dr. Harding’s insights were evident throughout. His writings and personal reflections on King were the glue that held that dissertation together. He taught me how to see King.
It has been hard for me to accept that he is gone. Even though we have had less contact in recent years, it was always comforting to me to know that Dr. Harding was in the atmosphere. It is difficult to set these words to paper. I have preferred to be in denial that on May 19, 2014, Vincent Gordon Harding died.
As Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, “Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” And in the words of the Old Negro Spiritual, “Oh What a Beautiful City,”
When I get to Heaven
I’m gonna sing an shout
Ain’t nobody up there
Gonna take me out
‘Cause He built twelve gates-a to city
Vincent Gordon Harding, I will meet you at gate number six.
Learn more about Vincent Harding in his obituary.
Frank A. Thomas is the director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration and the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary.
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