Keep the faith.
That was the message U.S. Rep. John Lewis left when signing copies of his acclaimed memoir of the civil rights movement, “Walking with the Wind.”
When I first met the civil-rights icon, my faith was ever forming; the convictions and commitments I carry today were being fleshed out.
I was 21 years old and a new graduate of the University of Georgia. I had moved from Athens to Atlanta to work for a couple months as an intern in Lewis’ downtown office.
It was a heady experience for a white kid from south Georgia with an interest in politics and a passion for studying civil rights history.
That summer internship inspired me and set in motion a series of experiences and years of study that have shaped who I am today – what I believe and try to live out about faith and advocacy, loving God and loving my neighbor.
While I worked for the congressman – as his staff affectionately called him – I did the things interns do (for example, answering the phone, welcoming guests, updating records, filing documents), but I also had the privilege to be part of a staff committed to helping low-income seniors navigate varied challenges related to Medicare, Social Security and other essential federal programs.
I also got a glimpse of public policy advocacy as Lewis convened local leaders alongside the former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher to raise awareness about the spread of HIV/AIDS at historically Black colleges and universities.
During that summer, I observed a man who loved everyone. He loved his wife, Lillian, who he came home to every weekend.
He loved his staff. He loved the visitors making time to say hello during his hectic schedule. He loved the people of Atlanta.
His love for everyone, including political opponents, is seen in the countless heartfelt testimonials flooding social media following his death.
What I witnessed was a beloved Baptist pastor and the 5th District was his congregation.
U.S. Rep. Lewis showed me that ministry is ministry, whether in a church building or the political arena.
Being an advocate for peace, justice and equality is a responsibility for all who confess Jesus as Lord.
In his memoir, Lewis wrote about becoming “sold on the social gospel” after reading Walter Rauschenbusch. I too wanted to be authentically “sold on the social gospel” like Lewis.
I went on that fall semester to intern with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., and begin a Master of Arts degree and later a doctorate program in religion and politics at Baylor University, for which U.S. Rep. Lewis kindly wrote a letter of recommendation.
I continued to study and write about the social gospel that shaped Lewis and other progressive Christians.
His advocacy and public policy efforts over the decades for racial justice and voting rights, the rights of immigrants and LGBTQ persons and his championing of environmental justice and confronting the plague of gun violence were the consistent continuation of a faithful public ministry rooted deeply in freedom and striving to create a beloved community – “the Kingdom of God here on Earth.”
John Lewis kept the faith, but what about us? Are we still keeping the faith?
I want to keep the faith, but it is not easy these days amid a pandemic and the disaster that is the Trump presidency and the havoc to our nation it has wrought.
I find comfort though in recalling the courage and public witness that U.S. Rep. Lewis displayed throughout his life and ministry.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair; be hopeful, be optimistic,” he said.
And on weeks like this past one filled with sadness, I’m convicted more than ever we must “speak up and speak out against discrimination” wherever we find it, as he told us over and over.
U.S. Rep. Lewis showed us that keeping the faith means actively loving others. As followers of Christ, we don’t have the luxury to sit in silence; we have to be “making a little noise” and “mov[ing] your feet,” he reminded.
U.S. Rep. Lewis offered us a definition of freedom I find most compelling. “Freedom is not a state; it is an act,” he wrote in 2017. “Freedom is the continuous action we all must take … to create an even more fair, more just society.”
And his words 54 years ago, as a 23-year-old speaking alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, are just as timely now as then.
“Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete.”
Let’s honor his words and witness. Let’s keep the faith.
RIP, Congressman Lewis.
Communications director for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, where he is editor of fellowship! magazine and the CBFblog. Weaver is a member of the Commission on Creation Care of the Baptist World Alliance.