Remembering John Lewis

This past weekend the nation paused to mourn and give thanks for the life and legacy of Congressman John Lewis, recognizing him as a genuine American hero, a giant in the Civil Rights Movement and an exemplary Christian disciple. He was propelled to work for the common good by his faith as a humble disciple of Jesus Christ, and his Christian witness led him to a brave and unwavering commitment to public service.

My husband, Larry Arney, and I both feel blessed now to have personal memories of being with John Lewis. Especially during this season where issues of racism are occupying our national attention and we, as individuals and as a church, are being called into a new era of working toward the civil liberties of every American, breaking down barriers of systemic racism, and building up a more just, diverse and tolerant human community.

I have memories of working side by side with John Lewis for an entire day nailing hurricane clips on the roof trusses of a Habitat for Humanity house in Atlanta. Larry has another story that has special resonance in our time. In his own words, Larry remembers:

In 1990, I was just beginning my stint as the Executive Director of the Atlanta chapter of Habitat for Humanity. In those days, Habitat for Humanity was still building its identity and image, primarily through group builds which attracted a lot of media attention, for example, when Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter came to Atlanta in 1988 and built 20 houses in one week.

So my role was to hold house building events to raise awareness and resources for our cause. We had assembled nine sites in Cabbagetown, originally a mill village for workers of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. Most of the workers came there from Appalachia, which was unique in terms of inner city housing since most of the neighborhoods surrounding it were predominantly African American. For example, the Old Fourth Ward, where Auburn Avenue, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the MLK district stood, were just a few steps away, but the culture was entirely different in Cabbagetown where all the residents were white.

We had a Saturday start date, with lots of media opportunities, and elected officials were invited. I remember there were some state legislators in attendance. It was John Lewis’ congressional district, but his office did not give us a response. The following week I was on site, checking in with our skeleton construction crew, who were mainly getting ready for upcoming Friday and Saturday volunteer days. One of the construction crew members said I might want to go over to a particular house on the site. There was someone I might want to meet. I did, and when I turned the corner, I saw John Lewis on a ladder putting up siding. He was cordial, but kept to his work. He said he was sorry he couldn’t come on the opening weekend, but he was in town today, and wanted to do what he could to help.  

My staff told me later that they gathered a few Cabbagetown neighborhood children (who always seemed to be interested in our construction) over to meet John during lunch. The staff told these white children about John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, because African Americans were denied the right to vote, and how he was hit in the head and was beaten. Lewis showed them the scar. One little boy looked up and said, “Did it hurt?” Lewis looked at him and said, “Yes, it hurt, but doing nothing hurts more. Ignoring things that are wrong hurts more. Seeing people denied their rights hurts more, because my head healed up. But rights denied hurts everyone.”

We need heroes like John Lewis these days: people of faith who are willing to work, who are willing to risk, who are even willing to suffer, to make the lives of those around them more fair, more equitable and more just. In August, as I head to our mountain cottage for vacation, I plan to take and reread John Lewis’ autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, among the stack of books I’ll carry with me.