The day I was sworn into Congress, a man I had never met before but had heard a lot about and admired approached me to introduce himself and welcome me to the House. His name was John Lewis. He told me he was born and raised in Troy, Alabama, and though he lived and represented a district in Georgia, he still felt a strong connection to our state. He offered to help me if he could. He was a big help to me because he was a moral inspiration, a priceless gift in this day and time.
If you have never heard of John Lewis, look him up. His story is amazing and should be an inspiration to us all. The youngest member of the leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, John was physically attacked, injured, and jailed on numerous occasions, all because he had the audacity to call for equal rights and voting rights for black people. He served in Congress for over 30 years and was known as the House’s conscience. I held him higher than that: I thought he was the nation’s conscience.
I had the privilege of traveling with John on several occasions. Every spring a group called Faith and Politics leads a civil rights pilgrimage, usually to Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, where John was always front and center. I participated in several of those. Riding on the bus to Selma with him for the 50th anniversary of the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as he pointed out key places and recounted key events along the way, was a real treat. And then there was the amazing trip to South Africa where we saw Nelson Mandela’s jail cell and met Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
He came to Mobile several years ago at my request, met with high school students and community leaders, and left an indelible impression. I’ll never forget his generosity with his time or the humility he showed. He was frequently on my connecting flight between Washington and Atlanta. It was like traveling with a rock star. But, he didn’t travel with staff, he travelled alone. And he always took the time to listen to all who approached him.
John died last week and the world will be a lesser place without him. I used to write down his various sayings and I’d like to share a few with you because they are wise words.
“Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
“There is a spark of the divine in each one of us and we don’t have a right to abuse it.”
He talked a lot about the “Beloved Community” and was asked once to define that. Here’s what he said: “It is where we can lay down the burden of separation and live in peace with one another. That we can become one family living in one house, the same house.” In these days of polarization and division, isn’t that great to hear?
If he sounds like a great preacher, that is because he was a great preacher far more than he was an elected official. And he lived what he preached. I think you call that integrity. You also call it character.
We didn’t always vote the same way. He didn’t share my conservatism and I didn’t share his liberalism. But I always listened to him and he took the time to listen to me. That’s what we’re missing today across America. We talk at one another and not with one another. We make gross generalizations about one another and don’t consider the person in front of us as unique, made in the image of God. John got all of that right because it was deep in his soul.
John said Dr. King called him the “boy from Troy.” I’ll remember him as a great man, Congressional colleague, and friend. To me he will always be the moral giant from Troy, and I miss him already.