As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!
The Sound of the Genuine
There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the genuine in yourself—and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.1
Howard Thurman spoke these powerful and poignant words to the Spelman College graduating class of 1980 in his baccalaureate address entitled, “The Sound of the Genuine.” Addressing young graduates eager to encounter the “real” world, Thurman exhorted his listeners to search for the genuine within instead. To be sure, their postgraduate life presented the promise of advancement, and similarly offered an array of causes to redress innumerable injustices. For Thurman, a cause was not difficult to identify—the difficulty was in identifying agents who knew and could name themselves. Thurman admonished them to tune into their authentic selves, before opening their ears to the clamor of a broken world desperate for help. Before they could become all things to all people, these graduates needed to become true to themselves.
Looking Inward, Then Outward
Almost forty years later, Thurman’s words couldn’t be more timely or prophetic. Our social media timelines, feeds and push notifications remind us that Aleppo, Goma, Ferguson, Baltimore, Falcon Heights, and countless other cities all over the world, demand our attention. One tragedy seemingly replaces another as rapidly as one can create a hashtag. And yet change follows at an alarmingly slow rate. In the onslaught of these national and global crises, we find ourselves desperately dividing our attention, time, faith, prayer, and activism into as many pieces as possible to attend to as many crises as possible—often with little success or fulfillment. We have oriented ourselves so fully towards the showdown in virtual and physical spaces, that we have forgotten what it means to show up to ourselves first. Our desire to care with the least of these has left us dangling on the end of strings of tragedy, pulled by unjust systems and institutions.
Rather than aspiring to the impossible ideal of changing the entire world, the sound of the genuine is a guiding voice towards the incremental changes that align with our gifts and calling… The sound of the genuine within me assures me that my passion for justice need not bind me to every cause.
This Lenten season invites us to pause, to wait, and to tune in to the sound of the genuine. Far from being a theological gloss for escapism, tuning into the sound of the genuine allows us to connect our identity with our vocation or life purpose, and this connection enables us to fine tune our social justice pursuits in the world. Rather than aspiring to the impossible ideal of changing the entire world, the sound of the genuine is a guiding voice towards the incremental changes that align with our gifts and calling.
Act on the Genuine!
As I help to raise my seventeen-year-old sister and care for my five-month-old daughter, the words that Thurman spoke almost four decades ago ease and confront my harried daily routine. The sound of the genuine within me assures me that my passion for justice need not bind me to every cause. If we all attended to the “sound of the genuine” within, I imagine that all causes would receive adequate coverage. Yet, Thurman’s words are a sobering warning that once I tune into the sound of the genuine, ignoring the work that my soul must do—raising young women who are true to themselves, teaching, and advocacy—would be to erase myself from a world that needs me to declare my commitment to justice, education, and young people.
As I accept Thurman’s timeless invitation to recalibrate my pursuits by turning inward first, I urge you to do the same. Tune into the sound of the genuine by seeking the wisdom of a counselor or coach to get you on the right frequency, allowing those closest to you to be a sounding board when static hampers your hearing, and building moments of quiet into your daily routine—one minute at a time. In time, you will find that the sound of the genuine—the voice of authenticity within—will guide you towards and empower you for your right cause.
1. Howard Thurman. “The Sound of the Genuine: Spelman Baccalaureate Address.” Ed. Jo Moore Stewart. The Spelman Messenger 96, 4 (Summer 1980).
Georgette Ledgister is a PhD Candidate in religion, and social and theological ethics at Emory University. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, her research interests focus on the intersection of religion, violence and peacebuilding, and locating agency in conflict and postconflict contexts amongst the most vulnerable and marginalized of populations. Her dissertation research explores marriage as agency in practice amongst young women in the Mai-Mai resistance movement of the southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, to interrogate the traditionally passive roles attributed to young African women in contexts of conflict. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Candler School of Theology in 2010, and is a candidate for ordination as an elder in the Methodist Church of Congo. She resides in Atlanta, Georgia with her spouse, André, and their daughter, Zuri.