Congressman John Lewis showed no signs of giving up, in or out as he paced, gestured and spoke with passion to a large and enthusiastic crowd nearing 1,000 in Montreat’s Anderson Auditorium. Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda: A Teach-In for Rededicating Ourselves to the Dream is being held August 21-23 at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina. Lewis is the United States representative for Georgia’s fifth congressional district and author of the “March” trilogy.
As thunder boomed outside Lewis slowly walked from one side of the chancel to other reflecting on being in the place where 50 years ago his friend walked and spoke saying, “It is almost too much.”
Recounting his experiences of that time, Congressman Lewis talked about growing up and being admonished “not to get in trouble.” But he said, “The spirit and the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the actions of Rosa Parks inspired me to get in trouble…the teaching of Jesus inspired me to get in trouble.” He said emphatically, “It is time for the church to get in trouble again.”
Lewis was arrested for the first of 40 times at the age of 20, and said “When I was arrested I felt free, I felt liberated, like I had crossed over and I have not turned back since.” Repeatedly pointing to the power of the Holy Spirit, Lewis encouraged those gathered to be bold saying that the church cannot shy away from its responsibility to lead.
Familiar phrases from 50 years ago reverberated once again in Anderson Auditorium. The call to build the beloved community, the power of nonviolence and the sacredness of each human being were lifted up by Lewis again and again. Added to a speech that could well have been a sermon was the need to stand up for all those who are currently oppressed and hurting. Lewis said we may have come here on different ships, but we are in the same boat now.
Congressman Lewis began his time by noting the warm spirit he felt in Montreat, a spirit Lewis embodied as he spoke. His relentless hope and joy was irrepressible. Referencing the song “Happy” by Pharrell he said, “Be happy!” Be happy because we serve a God of love and mercy and grace, he said adding: Be happy because our time on this planet it too short to be mean. He asked, “Is it possible for us to be kind to everyone?”
Despite arrests, beatings and all manner of hatred directed at him, Lewis appeared to believe it is possible and he continues to model that possibility for others. Throughout his speech the audience was captivated, so quiet that the gentle rain falling outside could be heard when Lewis paused.
He told those gathered that if King were present he would say, “Never, ever let someone pull you down so low that you hate them.” He proclaimed that we are one people, one family and we all live in the same house. Therefore, he charged, “Don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out. Keep the faith and move on continuing the story.” We need to hold our little house, the house of the world, together, he said.
Following an extended and rousing standing ovation there was a time for questions and answers that included one regarding how to be engaged in the upcoming election. Leaning down and looking directly into the eyes of Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and moderator of the Q & A session, Lewis emphasized the importance of the vote. Reminding the crowd that people had been beaten and died for the ability to vote, making it precious and even sacred in a democracy. Asked if he had ever been afraid he said his only fear was of thunder and lightening, noting he had been paying close attention to the storm going on outside while he spoke. However, he said that even though he had been beaten, left bloody and thinking he would die, he was never afraid because the power of peace, love and nonviolence taught him never to be afraid.
When asked what he would pass on to the next generation from his experiences in the civil rights movement, Lewis said, “Be hopeful, be optimistic, never become bitter, never hate.” He was unequivocal that it is nonviolence or nonexistence.
Once again the audience took to its feet and applauded Lewis. Lewis put his hand to his heart and bowed. The crowd then filed out into the gentle rain with “Happy” cascading from the auditorium sound system.