Image: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
John Lewis is no more and the world will miss him! When he died on July 17, 2020, he left a great void which will never be filled! He was one of a kind who roamed this earth, impacted on the lives of many and has left us all a rich and unforgettable legacy. He was truly a wonderful human and a great hero! Beginning Saturday July 25, his funeral ceremonies will last for full six days until his burial on Thursday July 30.
Ever since he died, rich and glowing tributes have been pouring in from every corner of the world; editorials and op-eds have been written on him: all remember and highlight the many causes he espoused and championed as a civil rights leader. The Congressional Black Caucus in a statement said. “The world has lost a legend; the civil rights movement has lost an icon.” John fought against against every form of discrimination and divisiveness: be it racism, casteism and attacks on the minorities in India. His convictions and stand for justice -were always based on nonviolence, peace and unity.
Much is being written about John Lewis. He was truly someone who contributed in many in promoting and protecting all that is right and just. Many of the eulogies that are written are by people who knew him at close quarters: were connected with him, worked with him or for that were able to follow him at least a good part of his eighty years. I make no claim to belong to any of these special groups. I have had however, the joy and privilege of meeting with him on three different occasions: once in Ahmedabad and on two different occasions in Washington DC; two of these meetings were very brief but one lasted for almost a couple of hours!
Ever since I heard of the death of John Lewis, I have been revisiting my meetings with him and feel it is important to put down some of my personal glimpses of this great soul, as a small way of paying my tribute to him, these include:
John Lewis was very human
I cherish my meetings with him; he gave me value time; he was such a warm, affable, available and unassuming person despite the power he had and the influence he could wield! He was definitely a busy person, but when I spoke, he gave me his total undivided attention, listening intently! His questions were based on what I had said; areas which needed more clarification or substantiation. Right from the word ‘go’ one felt that he trusted you; believed in what you were saying, was on the same page as you were and was determined to do all he could to address the concern
John Lewis was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi
There has never been any doubt about this: he was convinced of the non-violent approach of Mahatma Gandhi. I first met John in the Gandhi Ashram here in Ahmedabad; he was accompanying Martin Luther King III (the son of MLK Jr). “I have always wanted to come here; to experience the sacredness of this place”, he said to me. In one of my visits to his office in the Capitol, he insisted that his political assistant takes a picture of the two of us, in front of the displayed photos of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. which adorned his shelves. It is a vintage picture which I will always treasure. In December 2019, to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, John Lewis introduced a Bill (HR 5517) in the US House of Representatives that aimed to promote the legacy and contributions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Through the bill, he hoped to affirm the friendships of the two largest democracies of the world: India and the US and establish a bilateral partnership, “for collaboration to advance development and shared values, and for other purposes”. He had earlier proposed a similar bill, called the “Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative Act of 2011”, which aimed to use peaceful and non-violent methods for global conflict resolution.
John Lewis took a stand against injustice and for freedom
He was always concerned against any injustice, any discrimination that took place anywhere. His public fight against injustice began in the summer of 1961, when he and other students protested at segregated lunch counters and later joined the famous Freedom Rides. By his early twenties, Lewis was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In March 1963, he joined Martin Luther King and others at the ‘March on Washington’. He elevated his fight for freedom and equality with a passionate speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial’. He spoke on voting rights and the future of the Democratic Party. His speech was brief, lasting less than eight minutes, but his words influenced a generation of activists. “To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ ” he said, “we must say that we must not be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.“ His own resolve for justice and freedom was tested, as he and other peaceful protesters were violently beaten in 1965 while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He never looked back since then! He was anguished and angry at was happening to the minorities (particularly to the Christians and Muslims), the Dalits, the Adivasis and other vulnerable groups, in India, particularly since 2002. He never hesitated in sponsoring any Congressional resolution or endorsing any Congressional statement to address these matters.
John Lewis loved Mother Teresa
He simply loved Mother Teresa; her love for the poor; the peace and joy which she radiated. On 29 December 1975, TIME magazine brought out a special issue entitled ‘LIVING SAINTS’ (Messengers of Love and Hope). Mother Teresa was on the Cover Page and figured prominently in the detailed cover story, ‘Saints Among Us: The Work of Mother Teresa’. The story however, was not only about Mother Teresa but also about other ‘living saints’ who were making their mark on society with the much-needed love and hope. This is what TIME Magazine said almost forty-five years ago, “The U.S. has its own civil rights heroes. John Lewis, 35, the young apostle of nonviolence in the ’60s, was arrested more than 40 times in civil rights demonstrations, and his skull was fractured at Selma in 1965. Since 1970 he has headed the Voter Education Project in Atlanta and helped register some 3.5 million blacks. As a Baptist seminarian, Lewis was kidded for talking up the Social Gospel, but he insists that some “immutable principles” must be at the base of the “Beloved Society” he envisions, and nonviolence is one of them. If a compassionate world is the end, he argues, “then the means we use must be consistent with it.” John was the youngest of the ‘living saints’ who found a place in the article. No small achievement! I had never seen that issue of TIME magazine; but in one of my meetings with him, in a very bashful manner he took out a copy of that issue and showed it to me. “You know Father, he said, one of the happiest moments of my life was to be honoured in the same article which featured Mother Teresa. I know that I am not deserving of that ‘title’ but it has spurred me all these years to love the poorest of the poor just as she did!” Today I believe that John is with Mother Teresa in heaven celebrating their sainthood together there!
John Lewis admired Pope Francis
He genuinely admired Pope Francis. In September 2015, Pope Francis gave a historic speech to a joint session of the US Congress in Washington. That speech touched the hearts of many who were listening; many were teary-eyed. He returned to his Office and released a powerful statement which went viral and was covered extensively by the mainstream media. He wrote:
“The Holy Father, Pope Francis of the Holy See, delivered a powerful message to Congress and the American people today. In his humble, gentle way he used his authority to encourage us all to simply do what is right to protect the dignity of all humankind.
“He said, ‘All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity….Politics is…an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good…’
“These words and ideas speak to the center of our work as members of Congress and to the importance and vitality of our roles as individual citizens. Pope Francis delivered one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard in all my years in Congress. I loved the way he used the life and work of President Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as the basis of his lesson for all of us.
“Though I was reluctant to openly shed tears, I cried within to hear his words. I was deeply moved to realize I had a connection in some way with some of those he mentioned. When TIME magazine, years ago, did a story on “living saints,” they actually included Dorothy Day and I in the story. Also Thomas Merton was a monk whose words I studied during non-violence training in the Civil Rights Movement. It was amazing that the Pope mentioned the Selma-to-Montgomery march because during the first attempt to march to Montgomery, now known as Bloody Sunday, I carried one of Thomas Merton’s books in my backpack.
“Pope Francis spoke to the heart and soul of Congress and America. It is my hope and prayer that members of Congress will heed his simple call to respect the dignity and divinity of every human being then we would be better servants of the American people, this would be a better country, and a better world.” It was a direct ‘release’ from the heart of John: he meant every word! A genuine outburst!
In his lifetime, John tried to emulate MLK Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Pope Francis. He has left us at a crucial and critical time of our lives. The only real tribute we can pay this great soul is to have the courage to try to live concretely and substantially the rich legacy he has left us: by taking a stand against every form of discrimination and injustice around us!
Rest in peace Dear John! The world will miss you! We are poorer without you!
*Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer.
Other pieces by Fr Cedric Prakash: