A personal tribute to my friend John Lewis | Bishop Nathan Baxter

Like so many citizens of various political perspectives, I felt a deep sense of loss when I learned of Congressman John Lewis’s death. It is personal, because he was a friend and colleague.

When signing one of his books to me, he wrote, “To Nathan, my good friend and brother. Thank you for your leadership. With faith and hope, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize . . . ”

I know, given his gracious heart, he wrote such kind words to many. But to this boy from Uptown Harrisburg, it is a special treasure that still inspires me.

  • More: John Lewis will lie in state at U.S. Capitol after crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time

I came to know him early during my 12 years as Dean of the Washington National Cathedral. We gradually lost contact in the years after my return to Central Pennsylvania. However, I watched admiringly his continued deep spiritual commitment to Civil Rights for all.

We met socially around 1994, and I was immediately amazed by John’s humble spirit. Many forget Congressman Lewis was an ordained seminary-trained minister. But anyone who experienced him in public or private debate, or heard him lecture or preach, can attest to his unique mix of fire and grace.

John Lewis was one of the few leaders who genuinely embodied St. Paul’s admonition to “speak the truth in love” (i.e., with Godly respect for the humanity of the other). As members of his staff mused in a recent tribute, Congressman Lewis was not just committed to justice but to kindness.

In 1998, I was invited to be on the board of the Congregational Faith and Politics Institute founded 1991 by another mutual friend, the Rev. Douglas Tanner. The institute provided bipartisan opportunities for members of both houses of congress to do direct social service projects and gather in reflection groups and retreats. The purpose was to enable political leaders to “connect their public role with their greater calling as human beings.”

John Lewis was asked to be chair of the Institute’s Board in 1998. He embraced leading with a co-chair, Republican Congressman Amo Houghton. I saw first-hand their vision, which included gathering members of congress for intimate conversation with renowned moral and spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These bi-partisan gatherings were largely possible due to respect for John Lewis.

One of the congressman’s initiatives was to lead (always with a Republican colleague) bipartisan “Pilgrimages,” as he liked to call them, to Alabama’s Civil Rights Trails. These were three-day weekend trips of about 50–100 persons. My wife Mary Ellen and I were invited to join some pilgrimages. The experiences included visiting major sites such as Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the memorial of white martyred civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo and a re-enactment-march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. (John once said with a smile, “If everyone who said they were Bloody Sunday marchers were actually there, the bridge would have collapsed.”)

We also met Civil Rights leaders such as Corretta Scott King and Civil Rights opponents like Joe Smitherman, Mayor of Selma. During our Selma stop, I was amazed that Smitherman, who was the mayor on the infamous 1965 “Blood Sunday,” remained in office until 2000. Smitherman had allowed the police beatings of John Lewis and 600 Civil Rights marchers.

John openly forgave him, which built a trust that allowed Smitherman, his city council and officers to sit with congressional leaders and discuss the issues of the Civil Rights era. They engaged in what, at times, were poignant discussions on the work that still needed to be done.

These were not easy conversations, as Smitherman’s dominant political machine, and slightly reconstituted views, were still in place. However, it gave these experiences authenticity and allowed many congressional leaders, most of whom were either young children or unborn during the Civil Rights Movement, to consider for themselves issues of moral leadership. The work of the Institute continues faithfully in today’s bitterly polarized Civil Rights struggle.

Although it has been years since John Lewis and I have talked, like many Americans, I continue to be inspired by his courageous and unique leadership. His embrace of the Black Lives Matter Movement is not a surprise to me. Many forget he was a leader in another youth-inspired movement called Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Like any movement for good, the Civil Rights core movement was not perfect, particularly the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The dearth of women and youth in publicly credited leadership roles, the corporate top-down model of organization and the dominance of ministers were significant internal issues.

John Lewis, Julian Bond, Diane Nash and others, with their fiery but seasoned adviser, Ella Baker, were among the leaders who gave organized, respectful voices to young people and women leaders. They established new, bold strategies in the struggle for racial and economic equality.

With John’s gift of “fire and grace,” he became a critical bridge between SNCC, the SCLC and the larger movement. The legacy of SNCC includes coordinating the “sit-ins,” Freedom Riders, voter registration and “Freedom Schools,” teaching constitutional and voters’ rights to Black rural citizens.

John and his young courageous cohort coordinated what became known as the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (King and the SCLC co-led the second march with SNCC). SNCC also fought for a youth voice at the March on Washington. Due to their influence, Lewis was the only youth speaker among the approximately 20-plus speakers. The youthful, inclusive and bold leadership of the Black Lives Matter Movement had to be close to his heart.

Perhaps it is divine providence that John Lewis’s last public appearance was at Black Lives Matter Plaza in D.C. I was reminded of his statement: “I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get into trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”

I am sure John Lewis would end these words with a prayer for all of us in this difficult time. A prayer for young and old, politician and activist, Republican and Democrat, that as we do the necessary work of “getting in the way” for the sake of justice, we do so with some measure of “fire and grace.”

Nathan D. Baxter is a retired Episcopal Church Bishop, Professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a native of Harrisburg, Pa.

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