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Posted: 8/25/2020
A Civil Rights Champion Points the Way for Hope
Rev. John Lewis
Rev. John Lewis

It's been months since my last Reflection; but for weeks in these unordinary times of the pandemic with its ramifications and the national unrest and conflict after the killing of George Floyd, I tried to write. Write, even if only because doing so helps me make sense of difficult feelings churning inside me. But I found myself unsuccessful — both in thinking and in writing. I realized I had little of importance to say.

Not only did I realize I have little to say, I found my thoughts clouded by anger. My stabs at topics like Peace, Righteousness, and Law and Order became more akin to rants than reflections. (And heaven knows, we already have too many ranters and angry rants.) I even tried to bring in my usual standby, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote much about peace, and how we confuse peace with safety. But my words again turned into an angry rant. (I've included Bonhoeffer's thoughts about peace in the Resources below. I hope you'll read it.)

Clearly, I needed to give up ... or pursue a different angle.

Then, on July 17, 2020, at the age of 80, Rev. John Lewis died. For years I've considered Lewis a personal hero. When I thought about this hero, I knew I wanted and needed to write about Rev. Lewis. His life, beliefs, and actions embody anything I'd ever try convey about my thoughts on racial issues.

It may come as a surprise to some that I use the title Reverend with Lewis. (In fact, in researching this, I couldn't find one reference to him as Rev. John Lewis.) But that's what he was. Lewis graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee and was ordained as a Baptist minister. (He later received a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University.)

I hold up Rev. John Lewis in this Reflection and during this time of need for racial peace and justice because all that he did and said was based on his Christian faith and trust in a loving God. A lot has been said on his death (and rightfully so) about his work and leadership in civil rights and ongoing struggles for justice as a congressman from Georgia. However, like another leader Lewis admired and worked with, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was his faith that gave him his vision and guided his path. (Rev. King was also an American Baptist.)

Although Lewis was ordained, he never served in the typical role of church pastor. He once said that the movement and the larger community "became my church." While as a preacher Lewis was never as eloquent as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he did came alive in the pulpit, his sermons of justice combined with mercy and forgiveness passionately evident in Baptist preaching style.

Growing up in rural Alabama, near Troy, and in a sharecropper's family, Rev. Lewis always wanted to be a pastor, a preacher. He tells of the family's chickens as being his congregation: "I would start speaking or preaching. And as I look back, some of these chickens would bow their heads. Some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said 'Amen,' but I'm convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to during the '40s and the '50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today," he said in an interview with C-SPAN in 2012. (I wonder whether the young Lewis called the chickens, 'my flock'.)

Reverend Lewis is also special for me because he was a pastor in the American Baptist denomination. Those who read these Reflections may recall that for more than 30 years I was a member of that denomination and a leader in local ABC churches. Although no longer an American Baptist, I treasure the years there and the values and attitudes it instilled in me.

Certain things stand out in one's life. Seeing Lewis and hearing him preach at the American Baptist Biennial in Richmond, Virginia in 2003 is an evening I'll always remember. My wife, Rose, worked as editor of adult education materials for the American Baptist Convention (headquarters in Valley Forge, PA) and I went with her, supposedly as a help to her and Educational Ministries. At that national event, Lewis received an award for peacemaking and for his acceptance remarks he preached a fiery Baptist sermon. Hearing his words and seeing this national icon is a treasured moment.

I also bought his book, "Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement".Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement; By John Lewis and Michael D'Orso; current edition published by Simon & Schuster (February 10, 2015) I highly recommend it and found it not only an interesting account of his youth and work, but an excellent overview of the civil rights movement. Book: Walking with the Wind (I loaned it to someone a few years ago, but have forgotten to whom. I'd love to get it back and read it again!)

There is so much I could write about and share of the way Lewis' Christian faith was the key to his life and work. A video and the text of an interview about Lewis and faith give a vivid picture. (See these in the Resources below.) Here, though for space purposes, I'll share only a few comments Lewis made about the place of faith in his life and work.

"Sometimes when I look back and think about it, how did we do what we did? How did we succeed? We didn't have a Web site. We didn't have a cellular telephone. But I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us."

"On many occasions, before we'd go out on a sit-in, before we went on the freedom ride, before we marched from Selma to Montgomery, we would sing a song or say a prayer. Without our faith, without the spirit and spiritual bearings and underpinning, we would not have been so successful. Without prayer, without faith in the Almighty, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings."

And for those of us who are in churches and want the world to know the Gospel of Christ: "Sometime I feel today that maybe, just maybe, the religious leaders are too quiet. They need to make a little noise — need to push and to pull, and to be prophets. On some of the big issues, moral issues, seems like we have been so silent. Somehow we need to find a way to reclaim our position as people of faith."

Like Rev. King, Rev. Lewis did not believe in a natural inevitable progress toward racial justice and equality — those who exercise unjust power in our country would not simply give up their privileges easily. But, also like King, he believed in non-violence and the power of love, understanding, and forgiveness. Those were cornerstones in all his life's work.

In the early '60's, Lewis was a leader in forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later served as its chairman. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the Movement, including sit-ins and other activities. In the latter part of that decade, however, Lewis left SNCC after Stokely Carmichael became chairman, bringing in a more prone-to-violence form of Black Power. Lewis could not reconcile SNCC's new look — the look of the organization he founded and loved — turning away from the principles and actions of nonviolence.

At this point, I really have no idea how to pull together any of what I've shared. I'm sure most Americans, and especially Christians and people of faith, are, like I am, wrestling with where our country and its culture is in terms of race relations, racial justice, and equity. There are so many voices, so many conflicting thoughts and opinions. Too many loud and angry voices. So many side issues cloud and even distort what are the main and serious issues we face.

But, this is where I find personal heroes like John Lewis valuable. Through all his personal challenges in rural Alabama, the difficulties of providing leadership to the often-divergent civil rights movement, and until his death as "The conscience of the U.S. Congress", he has kept his vision fashioned and focused by his steadfast faith in God and the demands of love, forgiveness, and mercy. Like all of us, Lewis dealt with the forces of injustice and hatred. But, through his faith he knew that the answer was not in the mobilization of equal and opposite hatred. He knew that love has the power to break and change the hardest hearts. Lewis staked his life, again and again, on this belief.thought taken from the 7/20/20 Washington Post column by one of my favorite columnists, Michael Gerson. John Lewis's faith was a source of strength ...

On a very personal level, for months I have felt disturbed, distraught, fearful, and with a loss of hope. Not so much for myself, but for our country. I may be overly pessimistic, but I sense our multi-cultural nation as so divided and seeming growing more so day by day. I fear our country is so fractured, perhaps even beyond healing.

In our present state, I feel devoid of hope for any semblance of unity. These divides aren't simply differences of opinions, but separation of people into good and evil: "Not only do I think you are wrong, but I view you as bad, unpatriotic, even evil," is the tone of many. I see these divisions in families, social circles, even our churches. So many topics we cannot even talk about together, let alone debate in any civil manner. Is there anything we can agree on? We've turned whether to wear a face mask to protect ourselves and others into a political and "rights" statement based on our cultural divisions.

But, another John Lewis quote I didn't use above, hit me. In it he uses a word that named these feelings I've had. His words give me a sense of hope. He says, "Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. ..." That feeling I've had is despair. I can hear the preacher, in his soft, large-jowled voice: Do not despair!

I know, though, that in working to overcome despair I need to do more than simply tell myself, Do not Despair. I need to go to that same place that provided Lewis' strength and foundation for him not to despair. The source that is the love, mercy, and forgiveness of the almighty God.

As I work to rekindle that flame of belief and trust that can help me avoid despair, I need my focus to be toward a faith-based end. If I try to find ways to simply avoid wrestling with the difficulties and differences of this world, creating a personal bubble to avoid recognizing and thinking about those issues that cause despair, I am simply escaping. I need to discover and rediscover the nature of the faith that people like John Lewis had to walk in this real world, to strive to bring God's justice, and to work toward a Beloved Community. And do so without despair, but with hope.

Young Lewis and other praying before action.
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Resources Related To this Reflection

Bonhoeffer pic  Dietrich Bonhoeffer's piece on "The Way to Peace".
Lewis pic  John Lewis on "Faith" (Video).
Lewis pic  Extended Interview: John Lewis on "Faith" (Text).

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