"Don't ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, and go do it," Thurman told him. "Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."
Thurman's response went viral before the term was invented. It's been cited by everyone from cultural icon Oprah Winfrey to countless inspirational speakers. It's even become an internet meme. But what makes those words stick is that Thurman validated them by the way he lived.
He was a shy man who didn't lead marches or give dramatic speeches. But he was full of big ideas that changed the world. He pioneered a form of spiritual activism that blended contemplation with confrontation. He was "one of the unacknowledged shapers of 20th century America," according to one historian.
Thurman forged a connection between Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that gave wings to the civil rights movement. He wrote a bombshell of a book that revolutionized the traditional portrait of Jesus. And he still inspires leaders as diverse as civil rights icon John Lewis, the Democratic congressman from Atlanta, and Barbara Brown Taylor, a celebrated author and speaker.
"Howard Thurman was a spiritual genius who transformed persons who transformed history," is how Luther E. Smith, Jr., author of "Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet," once described him.
Now a broader audience is being offered their own chance to meet Thurman. Starting Friday, PBS stations will air "Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story." The 55-minute film explores how Thurman went from a lonely African-American boy who talked to an oak tree for companionship to a man who still speaks to spiritual seekers nearly 40 years after his death.
Martin Doblmeier, the film's director, said Thurman's voice is needed even more today because of pervasive political and religious tribalism. Thurman constantly sought common ground with people who were different.
He calls Thurman the "patron saint of those who say I'm spiritual not religious."
"He can put angry hearts at ease," he says. "You can't read Howard Thurman and come away with an angry heart."
Thurman's deep connection with MLK
He also took risks.
He was the first pastor to co-found an intentionally multiracial and multifaith church in the United States.
He was the first African-American pastor to travel to India and meet Gandhi. (Gandhi ended their meeting by asking Thurman to sing a Negro spiritual).
And he was one of the first pastors to inspire King to merge Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance with the civil rights movement.
Thurman's connection with King went way back. He was a classmate of King's father, "Daddy King," at Morehouse College. And he became dean at Boston University's Marsh Chapel while King was enrolled at the university. While King was studying for his doctorate at the university, he would attend chapel service and take notes while Thurman preached.
King would often stop by Thurman's house on Sunday afternoons for another ritual: watching Jackie Robinson play baseball on TV.
"There's this fatherly sense, this spiritual mentorship that Thurman provides to Martin Luther King, Jr.," Doblmeier says.
King quickly got a chance to apply the lessons he learned from hearing Thurman preach. Six months after earning his doctorate, he led his first nonviolent mass protest in Montgomery, Alabama. Thurman's concepts about nonviolence and Jesus are peppered through some of King's writings.
"One cannot understand King's philosophy and theology without first understanding Thurman's work and Thurman's influence on King and other civil rights leaders," says David B. Gowler, co-editor of "Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables."
Gowler called Thurman one of the overlooked heroes of the civil rights movement. Yet he wasn't a traditional preacher-activist. One pastor in the film quipped that many expected Thurman to be a Moses, but instead they got a mystic.
The essence of Thurman's message
Thurman embodied what some call a "prophetic spirituality." He talked constantly about the "inward journey." But he wasn't interested in any theology preoccupied with the self. He thought personal transformation should be accompanied by a "burning concern for social justice."
Gowler calls Thurman a "spiritual activist." So was Thurman's wife, Sue Bailey Thurman,
"He was fundamentally both a teacher and pastor to others in the civil rights movement," says Gowler, a religion professor at Oxford College of Emory University in Georgia.
Thurman was also another type of pioneer, the film shows. Long before the term "interfaith dialogue" became common, Thurman worshiped with people of other faiths and warned about the dangers of religious fundamentalism.
He once told the BBC that "theologies are inventions of the mind" designed to "imprison religious experience." But the religious experience itself will always be one step ahead of dogma because it is "dynamic and fluid."
"Whether I'm black, white, Presbyterian, Baptist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim -- in the presence of God all of these categories by which we relate to each other fade away," Thurman says during another interview in the film.
The film also explores Thurman's best-known work, "Jesus and the Disinherited," which was published in 1949. The book was a condemnation of an "otherworldly" Christianity, which Thurman said was far too often "on the side of the strong and the powerful against the weak and oppressed."
A person can't grasp Jesus' message without first understanding the anger and fear that he grappled with as a member of a despised minority under Roman occupation, Thurman argued in the book.
"Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was a poor Jew. Jesus was a poor Jew from a minority group. Thurman makes the point that if Jesus were kicked into the ditch by a Roman soldier, he would be just another Jew in a ditch," Gregory Ellison II, an activist who is working on a book on Thurman, says in the film.
The 'sound of the genuine'
Thurman knew what it felt like to be despised. He was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, during the "nadir" of race relations in post-Civil War America. Lynching was common, discrimination legal and the Ku Klux Klan was so popular it held a massive march on Washington when he was a young man.
He was 7 when his father died. He was raised in part by his grandmother, Nancy, who had been enslaved. She was illiterate, but he saw her as his first spiritual genius.
"I learned more, for instance, about the genius of the religion of Jesus from my grandmother than from all the men who taught me all ... the Greek and all the rest of it," he once said.
Despite Thurman's influence, he's not commonly known today. Many classic civil rights books and documentaries fail to mention him. Part of that may be because Thurman was so hard to define. Even his preaching style was unconventional. He didn't throw down like a traditional black pastor with foot-stomping and shouting.
In the book, "Howard Thurman: Essential Writings," Smith describes Thurman's peculiar preaching style:
"He was a master in the use of silence. At times, he would be so overwhelmed by an understanding that he seemed to be in a trance."
Thurman's relative obscurity is part of what drove Doblmeier to make his film.
"My big fear is that Howard Thurman's name might get lost in history," he says. "We want to use this moment in history to get the word out."
Others are taking up Doblmeier's cause. The director Arleigh Prelow is nearing completion of another film on the minister and mystic entitled, "The Psalm of Howard Thurman." And a biography, "Against the Hounds of Hell: A life of Howard Thurman," is set to be published next year.
Thurman may finally get mass recognition. Not that it would matter to him, though. He was interested in something else.
In 1980, a year before he died, he gave a commencement address at Spelman College in Atlanta, where he talked about what he called "the sound of the genuine."
He described it as something that "flows through everyone" but can be rendered mute by ambition, dreams and the daily tumult of life.
"You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence," Thurman said. "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."
So what is the sound of the genuine? The meaning is elusive but tantalizing, like much of Thurman's work. Ask four Thurman scholars and you'll get four different answers.
But virtually all of Thurman's devotees agree on one point. The Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a civil right activist, says it best near the end of the film.
"If you are a serious person about your own journey," Moss says, "especially if you are in the struggle for human rights, then you've got to meet Howard Thurman."