I have a secret weapon when I engage complete strangers in political conversations as I often do. It's my U.S. Congressman, John Lewis. First I must say, this weekend there's a big party in Atlanta, celebrating Rep. Lewis' 75th birthday. It will be a momentous occasion for every person there, each in her or his own way.
Alas, we'll have to be there in spirit, but that's okay. John Lewis has a lifetime of experience with things of the spirit. He speaks of "the Spirit of History," which he says leads ordinary people -- of which he considers himself one -- to do extraordinary things. Despite being theologically trained, this wonderful representative of all his constituents does not flaunt his personal religious beliefs. Imagine that!
For almost 30 years, people in Georgia's Fifth District -- and all of America -- have been able to count on this person of unquestionable integrity, someone who shares our hunger for justice and love of the planet. Personally, when we decided to move to Atlanta in the late '80s, we chose an "iffy" neighborhood (now decidedly trendy) relieved to know that even living in the Very Deep South, John Lewis' voice would be echoing ours in the nation's capitol.
As our Congressman, we experienced John Lewis to be the same intense, fearless adult that he'd been as one of The Children. That's what the luminous journalist David Halberstam titled his remarkable book about the revolutionary 1960 Nashville students whose lunch counter sit-ins he'd covered as a young newspaper reporter. In our conversation with him, Mr. Halberstam described them somewhat differently, "...a community of conscience that ended the last vestiges of legal feudalism in this society."
Representative Lewis always makes one feel special. When he published his memoir Walking With The Wind, it was an honor to explore that book with him at Atlanta's prestigious downtown Commerce Club. It was a lifetime high for me to "M.C." the Interdenominational Theological Center's presentation of their "Distinguished Public Servant" award to Congressman Lewis. But the marvel of Rep. Lewis is that he makes all of his constituents feel special.
And he is always sincere when he urges us to keep him informed about our concerns and opinions. While he has never veered from his commitment to nonviolence, he is stalwart in the face of conflict. Two examples suffice. When America attacked Iraq, Representative Lewis used one of his regular town halls to make clear to us the motivation: "O-I-L!" Nor did he mince words announcing his decision not to attend Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent campaign speech before Congress.
So, inspired by my Congressman, I do go looking for what friends call trouble and I call democratic dialogue (thank you, Cornel West). When I hear a defensive "...but I'm just one person" or a wimped-out "what I do doesn't matter," I invoke the justly famous image of John Lewis on the Pettus Bridge: A physically slight, very young man looking as if he were Daniel leading the stalwart many into the lions' den -- the sinister void between them and the wall of Alabama State Troopers defending an abominable status quo? That's where history gets made.
Then, if I've ignited a conversation, I invite my fellow citizen to the next level: The amazing experience of having a representative in Congress who actually represents the people of his own district and also -- in President Lincoln's words -- America's "better angels."
So it is with immense gratitude that we share the world's admiration and laud our Congressman. Our small gift to him for this celebration is to share his exemplary everyman (and woman) story. His essential wit and quiet humor is manifest in my favorite among the stories he tells on himself. As a child deep in Alabama's back-of-beyond, young John practiced his preaching to his sharecropping family's chickens. And, the Congressman now says with a twinkle, "... sometimes they said 'Amen!'"
Happy Birthday, John Lewis, who represents me!