A Day Spent With Congressman John Lewis

January 17th, 2017  |   

Yesterday I decided to forgo the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade and speeches. Instead, I spent the better part of my day with Congressman John Lewis. It was my very own way of remembering Dr. King. That is, remembering John Lewis.

I met Congressman John Lewis in 1999, when I took him into a chicken house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. But this was, by no means, the first time he had been in a chicken house. 

As a little boy, chickens, the ones in his own farmyard, fascinated him. He had a heart for them. He writes about them in his book, “Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” While others prized the horses, cows, hogs, dogs and cats, and viewed chickens as “the lowest form of life on the farm—stupid, smelly, nuisances, awkward, comical birds,” Lewis was drawn to their lowly “outcast status…forsaken by everyone else.”

The henhouse itself seemed a holy place to me…I preached to my birds just about every night. I would get them all into the henhouse, settle them onto their roosts, and then stand in the doorway and speak to them, reciting pieces of the Bible, the same verses I memorized for Sunday school…I could imagine that they were my congregation. And me, I was a preacher.

So there we were, on a cold, rainy day, in a smelly chicken house near Berlin, Maryland, with thousands of these comical birds fluttering around our feet. John Lewis had not come to preach. Instead, he, along with four other members of Congress, had come for an opportunity to listen to, and better understand, chicken growers, plant workers (a huge Latino population) organized labor leaders, environmentalists and church folks talk about the injustices associated with raising chickens for the poultry industry.

In August 1963, thirty-six years prior to meeting John Lewis, I was preparing to start my last year of seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Just across the Potomac River a huge crowd had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” address. One of the many civil rights leaders scheduled to speak was the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis. He had prepared an angry, fiery speech.

The night before the event, Lewis’ speech was mistakenly leaked to the press, and thus read by the leaders of the March. They were troubled by parts of the speech. The harsh criticism of the Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill, along with a militancy that boiled over with a call to “march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did.” The leaders invited Lewis to a meeting to discuss the speech.

Yesterday, honoring Dr. King, in my own way, I went back to my copy of John Lewis’ book. It had been a signed gift from him, following our day in the Maryland poultry house, and his briefing. I read about that eventful meeting, held the night before the March. In the account I found the fiery version of the speech, as well as the rewritten one, with the changes John Lewis finally made and delivered.

There as well, was the explanation behind Lewis’ decision to make those changes. It was Dr. King’s comment, “John, this doesn’t sound like you.”  (See the Bill Moyers interview with Lewis at https://vimeo.com/70562136)

So, Congressman John Lewis, eighteen years after that day in a smelly poultry house, has announced that he intends to absent himself from Donald Trump’s Inauguration. That sounds, to me, like John Lewis

The ever- tweeting president-to-be has chirped two disparaging messages in response. The last one says John Lewis is, “All talk, talk, talk—no action or results.”

The only response I could conjure up to that chirp, in light of the darkness that surrounds this ugly election and depressing Inauguration, is the last paragraph of Congressman John Lewis’ book.

There is an old African proverb: When you pray, move your feet.” As a nation, if we care for the Beloved Community, we must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house—the American family.

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Nations will hammer swords into plows, their spears into sickles, there shall be no more training for war. Each person will sit under his or her fig tree in peace.
Micah 4:3 - 4