Saturday, July 25, 2020

The enduring grace of John Lewis - The On Being Project

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” — John Lewis
In the week since Rep. John Lewis died, I’ve returned to something Imani Perry wrote in another time and in another context — on grace: “In the Catholic tradition, there is a form of grace, the sanctifying one, that is the stuff of your soul. It is not defined by moments of mercy or opportunity; it is not good things happening to you. Rather, it is the good thing that is in you, regardless of what happens. You carry this down through generations, same as the epigenetic trauma of a violent slave-master society. But the grace is the bigger part. It is what made the ancestors hold on so that we could become.”
This kind of grace is woven throughout John Lewis’s life. He was born the third son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama. At 21, he protested against segregation on public transportation as part of the 1961 freedom rides. Two years later, he spoke at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. And in 1965, he was beaten unconscious by police while leading the march from Selma to Montgomery, in what is now known as Bloody Sunday.
During the civil rights movement and in his decades of public service thereafter, Lewis met the resistance, contempt, and violence against his activism with nonviolence and love. In his 2013 conversation with Krista, which we’re revisiting this week in his memory, he talked about seeing the humanity in everyone — even those who were attacking, beating, or spitting on him. “There comes a time where you have to be prepared to literally put your physical body in the way to go against something that is evil, unjust, and you prepare to suffer the consequences. But whatever you do, whatever your response is, is with love, kindness, and that sense of faith.”
The same love anchored his protest against a society designed to never love him back. “When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action,” he said. “We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action.”
He was committed to the work, even knowing he might never see the fruits of his labor. As he reflected in his On Being conversation, “You have to take the long, hard look. With this belief, it’s going to be OK. It’s going to work out. If it failed to happen during your lifetime, then maybe — not maybe, but it would happen in somebody’s lifetime,” he said. “But you must do all that you can do while you occupy this space during your time.”
He certainly lived up to these words — whether as a young man walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge or as an elder walking across the Black Lives Matter mural painted across the streets of Washington, D.C. last month. If grace is, as Imani Perry writes, “what made the ancestors hold on so that we could become,” then the world has much to thank for John Lewis’s grace.
Kristin Lin
Editor, The On Being Project

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