Saint John of the Bridge
“Pray. Then move your feet.”
As a tenderhearted young boy, one of 10 children in a sharecropper’s family, John was responsible for taking care of the chickens. He fed them and read the Bible to them. He baptized them when they were born and staged funerals for them when they died. His siblings called him Preacher.
When he was 15, John heard about the horrific murder of 14 year old Emmet Till, and thought: that could be me. Then he listened to Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s sermons on the radio, offering the possibility of another, better way for us all to live. This epiphany led young John Lewis to join King’s non-violent civil rights movement. He participated in sit-ins; he marched for voting rights. He was rewarded with a split skull from a club wielded by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, 1965. But John was ready—this group of peaceful protesters had prepared for this possibility, practicing being hit, pushed, and spat upon. They were not naïve; they were just committed to the way forward.
John Lewis’ lifelong quest for justice continued. He served multiple terms in the House of Representatives before his death last week at age 80. Lewis was known as the Conscience of the Congress, his physical presence a bridge to history (he was an original Freedom Rider). His was a moral compass that never wavered; he always spoke with measured wisdom coming from his deep faith in God.
My friend Molly Newton’s son Sam interned for Rep. Lewis just a few years ago. Said Sam, "He was my first boss on Capitol Hill. He showed me not all politicians are conniving. He was genuine, he was humble. He was what all men should strive to be." It was so refreshing to hear that John Lewis really was exactly as he seemed.
One of Lewis’ final acts, just before entering the hospital for the last time, was to appear on Black Lives Matter Plaza in DC, to show his support. He recognized that the fight for justice is far from over. John Lewis left us with these words, from an essay in the New York Times published after his death:
When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something…Each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key.
There is a movement to rename the Pettus Bridge for this incredible man, and I hope it happens. In any event, it is sacred ground, where a modern-day saint named John stood up for freedom. It is our job to carry on, and to remember.
RIP, John Lewis. May your memory be a blessing, and a challenge.