Hartford International University for Religion and Peace has launched its new Howard Thurman Center for Justice and Transformational Ministry, an expansion of its longtime Black Ministries Program, named for the 20th-century theologian and mystic.

Joel N Lohr, president of the university that previously was known as Hartford Seminary, said the centre fits into the school’s strategic plan that focuses on peace building.

“It was my hope that this would be a moment to grow, to envision a centre that would do more to support students, justice and ministry,” he said at a Tuesday webinar that officially launched the centre and was attended by alumni, as well as Thurman’s grandchildren.

US Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman was a theologian and mystic who taught at both Howard University and Boston University. PICTURE: Courtesy of Emory University

The centre, which is a $US2 million project, is supported by a $US1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The grant will support a resource centre, pay for a Black church scholar and assure that students will not be excluded if they cannot afford the coursework.

The HTC will be led by Bishop Benjamin Watts, who will also continue to lead the Black Ministries Program founded in 1982 by the late Christian Methodist Episcopal Senior Bishop Thomas Hoyt.

“The centre’s North Star will be Thurman’s insistence on social justice and responsibility within a spiritual framework,” said Watts in an introductory video during the launch event.

In live comments, Watts spoke of plans to move beyond the centre’s regional focus in its two-year certificate course and to become a national model of theological training for pastors and lay people. He said the centre also wants to expand the training to include health, wellness and trauma education.

“Those of us of faith have to find ways to continually engage with other persons, and particularly our youth who seem to be falling away from our worship centres,” he said.

During a live interview, Watts asked the Rev. Walter Fluker, editor of The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, to describe the centre’s namesake, who died in 1981.

“Thurman, like great mystics - the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu - if you meet them, they’re always laughing, because they understand the deep, tragic sense of life and it’s only because of their deep sense of the tragic that they’re able to look at the world and laugh at the world,” said Fluker, a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. ”To meet Howard Thurman is to meet not a detached mystic unconcerned about the affairs of the world, but a very earthly human being.”

The launch event also featured video comments from the Rev. Andrew Young, a longtime civil rights activist who worked with Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, and is an alumnus of the Connecticut university, and an interview with former Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum, who earned a master’s in religious studies from the school.