Frank Laubach (1884-1970) was a Christian mystic who believed that practicing the presence of God would do more good for humanity than political sand diplomatic schemes devoid of God.
Laubach devised a remarkably effective adult literacy program known as, “Each One Teach One.” However, his primary aims were always spiritual—to live his life in a moment to moment relationship with God, and to inspire others to do the same.
“A university man’s religion”
Swami Kriyananda tells us that there was nothing in Laubach’s religious training to suggest that an inner world of divine realization existed. Kriyananda writes that “it was divinely natural and right for him, in the context of his own spiritual development, to turn his perceptions outward.”
Laubach’s own words support Kriyananda’s perception. Writing about his life before 1930, he describes himself as having a “the university man’s religion:”
I believed that Jesus was probably the best man who had ever lived. But that memory of Jesus lacked power.
Then I had a personal experience of Christ in Mindanao, Philippine Islands, which left me sure that he not only lives, but lives in my heart. When he entered my heart, he brought to me a tender compassion for the multitudes which has been the driving power of my life ever since.
Laubach grew up in Pennsylvania, in a fundamentalist Christian environment, the son of a prosperous dentist. His interest in religion began at a young age and by early adolescence, he had discovered, in the town library, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, a devotional classic on prayer and contemplation.
At age 16, Laubach decided to make the ministry his life’s work. He graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1913, and received a PhD from Columbia University in 1915. It was during his seminary years that he became acquainted with Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God.
A long standing ambition
After being ordained a minister of the Congregational Church, Laubach felt a calling for missionary work and volunteered to serve in the Philippines. He intended to work with the Moros (Moslems) on the southern coast of the island of Mindanao, one of the few areas that had not been Christianized.
However, within a few weeks of arriving in the Moro city of Dansalan in the province of Lanao, Laubach and his wife were forced to leave. The United States Army, which controlled the area, considered the Moros much too hostile to Christians.
The Laubachs settled on the northwest coast of Mindanao where they did missionary work. In 1922 they moved to Manila where Frank Laubach served as a pastor of an interdenominational church and helped establish Union Theological Seminary. But his longstanding ambition was to bring Christianity to the Moros.
An atmosphere of tension and suspicion
After fifteen years, hostilities among the Moros subsided and Laubach immediately made plans to return to Lanao. For the time being, his wife and family were to remain in Manila.
Unsuspectingly, Laubach walked into an atmosphere of tension and suspicion. Some of the Filipino Christian teachers who had previously come to Dansalan had violated local customs. Several of the teachers were killed and at least fifty of their schools burned down.
Laubach encountered hostility and indifference everywhere he went. After a month, he had to acknowledge to himself that he was beaten.
God speaks to him
Laubach was not only discouraged over his inability to win over the Moros. He was also profoundly dissatisfied with his spiritual life. Recalling the books by Thomas a Kempis and Brother Lawrence he had read years before, he realized that he was still not living his days “in a minute by minute effort to follow God’s will.”
Determined to keep the constant presence of God, he prayed with renewed fervor and asked, “What, Father, do you desire done? What, Father, do you desire done this minute?”
Each evening at sunset he climbed Signal Hill, a twenty-minute walk from his house. There, overlooking the lakes, mountains and the distant sea, he often prayed aloud and listened with all his soul for an answer. One evening, in the depths of despair, his lips began to move; it seemed that God was speaking to him through his own voice.
“My child,” the voice said, “you have failed because you do not really love these Moros. You feel superior to them because you are white. If you can forget you are an American and think only how I love them, they will respond.”
Laubach answered, “It is the truth, God. Drive me out of myself. Come and take possession of me and think Thy thoughts in my mind.”
And the voice said again through his own lips, “If you want the Moros to be fair to your religion, be fair to theirs. Study the Koran with them.”
Learning from the Moro priests
The next day Laubach went to the Moro priests and told them that he wanted to study the Koran. They responded eagerly, thinking he wanted to become a Moslem.
They brought with them a list of the four holy books of Islam—the Torah (the laws of Moses); the Zabur (the Psalms of David); the Kitab Injil (the gospel of Jesus Christ); and the Koran of Mohammed.
Laubach explained as well as he could in their language, “From childhood I have studied the first three books on your list.” Partly in English, partly in the Moro tongue, the priests talked of Jesus as the holiest prophet after Mohammed.
Having finally established a bridge with the Moros, Laubach was now ready to tackle the problem of illiteracy, which to him was an essential first step before talking to them of religion. His first project was to create a dictionary of “Maranaw,” the Moro language. A printing press and a building for a school soon followed.
The Moro priests and a group of young Moros often expressed their gratitude: “You are the first who has ever tried to appreciate us,” they insisted.
Meeting God face to face
Not only was Laubach’s work showing outward results, his spiritual experiment was also bearing fruit. He wrote: “Now I like God’s presence so much that when He slips out of my mind—as He does many times a day—I feel as though I had deserted Him and lost something very precious in my life.”
In letters to friends and relatives, Laubach shared his inner experiences:
How infinitely richer this direct first hand grasping of God is, than the old method which I used and recommended for years: the reading of endless devotional books. Almost it seems to me now that the very Bible cannot be read as a substitute for meeting God soul to soul and face to face….
I have tasted a thrill in fellowship with God…. This afternoon the possession of God has caught me up with such sheer joy that I thought I never had known anything like it. God was so close and so amazingly lovely that I felt like melting all over with a strange and blissful contentment.
The birth of “Each One Teach One”
The reading campaign was a great success. When the depression of the 1930s and lack of funds threatened to cripple the work, Laubach arrived at the “Each One Teach One” concept—a revolutionary idea, whereby everyone who knew how to read must teach someone else.
This concept became the cornerstone of Laubach’s adult literacy program, and the foundation for teaching adult literacy on a mass basis, using volunteer teachers. His new teaching method soon spread throughout much of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
In spite of years of intense travel and activity, Laubach continued his “game with minutes” in which he challenged himself to think of God at least once each minute. Having disciplined himself to rise at 3 or 4 a.m., he wrote, prayed and meditated during the early morning hours, and recorded in his diary his daily struggle towards spiritual perfection.
In the mid-1930s he wrote a booklet, The Game with Minutes, designed to show others how to practice the presence of God.
The secret “interview room”
Many years later Laubach had a vision of God and Jesus together in a long room. Jesus spoke to him, saying it was time for him to take “a long stride toward becoming a full-grown son of God.” Jesus explained:
Your game with the minutes was in the right direction, but tonight you are going beyond that game into the game with moments. One of your songs which best express the goal for you is:
Moment by moment
I’m lost in His love.
Moment by moment
I’ve power from above.
Jesus said that from then on, Laubach was to spend each “day and night, with the door wide open into the secret interview room with us.” In an obvious reference to the spiritual eye, Jesus explained that the interview room was “in the front of your head: When you wish to consult us, lift up your eyes a little and there we are, not beyond the stars but just over your own eyes.”
Intense and constant work
As Laubach approached his eightieth birthday, he was asked about the seeming conflict between his trust in God and his habit of intense and constant work. He said:
As far as my faith is concerned, I believe that God is running the universe. He is going to work out everything. If He doesn’t work it out through one of us, He will work it out through another who is willing. But I must not forget that these things will not come through me unless I work with all my might.
Frank Laubach died June 11, 1970, at the age of 85.
This article first appeared in print in Winter 2009: “Frank C. Laubach,” Swami Kriyananda, Clarity Magazine.
Nakin Lenti, a minister and long-time Ananda member, serves in the Sangha Office at Ananda Village.