A Tribute to Representative John Lewis: The Content of His Character

Posted on July 21, 2020. Updated on July 21, 2020

Soon after I became Bishop Suffragan in the Diocese of Alabama in 2002, a group of adults joined me in birthing a process we called the “Pilgrimage for Peace.” The purpose of the pilgrimage was to bring young people into meaningful connection with the historical record of nonviolent struggles for rights around the world, and with those living who could give eye-witness accounts of those world-changing struggles. We began at home, with the Civil Rights Movement in the American South. The experiences of the Pilgrimages for Peace, which extended into my first years as Bishop in the Episcopal Church in the Bay Area, the Diocese of California, were life-changing for me, as I believe they were for the adults and many of the young people who took part.

Over the five years I served as Bishop Suffragan in Alabama, the annual Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage, which I renamed the “Jonathan Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama Pilgrimage,” became a part of the Pilgrimage for Peace process. At the first actual Pilgrimage for Peace gathering, and at the annual Jonathan Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama pilgrimages, we were blessed to be joined by giants of the Civil Rights Movement – Ruby Sales, Vincent Harding, John Hulett, Jr., some of the SNCC volunteers who had been jailed with Jonathan Daniels in Hayneville, James Bevell, and Representative John Lewis.

Rep. John Lewis walking with Bishop Marc at the annual Jonathan Daniels and Martyrs of Alabama Pilgrimage, 2006. Photo: the Montgomery Advertiser

I reached out to all of these remarkable people as an obscure, newly ordained bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. That they came to “bloody Lowndes,” as it was known for its brutality to Blacks, and during the month of August, to speak to young people, sharing their vision of nonviolent change, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of repair of the Beloved Community, is still astounding to me. Harding, an elderly man at the time, and Sales, in fact, spent a whole week with us, living in a decommissioned, un-airconditioned seminary in Lowndes County. Each one of these Civil Rights veterans taught us something precious from their own life experiences, distilled over the years.

Lewis came to Alabama to preach the last year that we lived there, just as we were moving to our new home in California. The message the lawmaker, activist, ordained Baptist minister gave us was one of reconciliation and the Beloved Community. First, he put the several hundred pilgrims, many of whom were teenagers, at ease by talking of his own upbringing in rural Alabama, outside Troy. Then, the core of his sermon, he told us the story of being beaten at a bus station in 1961 by unknown white assailants.  He and Albert Bigelow were part of a group of Freedom Riders, and their attackers were associated with the Ku Klux Klan. One of the men who beat Lewis, Elwin Wilson apologized decades later. While it is impressive that Wilson had the courage to come forward and admit his wrongdoing and to seek forgiveness, it was Lewis’ decision to accept the apology, to forgive the aggressor, and to meet with him in an act of reconciliation that left the greatest impression on me. Lewis and Bigelow did not fight back at the time, and his unwavering commitment to nonviolence, forgiveness, reconciliation and the restoration of the Beloved Community have been formative for me.

I was just being introduced to the Beloved Community back in 2005, a resonant idea that I carried into my conscious work in the Episcopal Church in the San Francisco Bay Area after I became the bishop here. From Lewis, I had begun to understand the role of reconciliation in restoring the Beloved Community when it has been betrayed. He also helped me learn, through his example, that the Beloved Community includes absolutely all. On the eve of President Obama’s first inauguration, I heard Representative Lewis being interviewed on Terri Gross’s show, Fresh Air. Gross asked Lewis what he thought of the proposition that the struggle for the recognition of rights for LGBT people was the contemporary expression or extension of the Civil Rights Movement of which he had been such an important leader. Without hesitation, he said, “Yes.”

Later, my study of the Beloved Community through the friendship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thích Nhât Hanh taught me that the Beloved Community’s embrace includes more than even the full extent of human life – all of life is a part of this divinely originate community.

The world could become dimmer with the passing of Representative John Lewis, but I am sure he would not want it to be so. As I have written in my dissertation on the repair of the Beloved Community, Nhât Hanh, who has carried the Beloved Community forward since he made a vow to do so on April 4, 1968, when he learned of King’s assassination, believes that the leadership of the Beloved Community will be our common responsibility. If the light of the Beloved Community is to shine forth, it is we who will trim our many lamps to the task of lighting the way forward. Rest in peace, John Lewis.

+MHA