Congressman John Lewis died last Friday, leaving with us his lifetime legacy of advancing civil rights, starting as a young man as a participant in the Freedom Rides, chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and an architect of and speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. He survived the infamous Bloody Sunday in 1965 – leading over 600 peaceful protestors over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, headed for Montgomery, when they were attacked by Alabama state troopers.
Lewis began leading annual pilgrimages to Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma in 1998 as board co-chair of the Faith & Politics Institute. Faith & Politics Institute was founded in 1991 to urge public officials to stay in touch with their faith and values as they shape public policy.* U.S. senators and representatives, presidents, and world leaders joined him each year to better understand racial injustice and work towards reconciliation and healing.
“Through his passing, the nation has lost a truth teller. He was the moral conscience of both congress and the nation,” says Liza Heavener ’07, who worked at the Faith & Politics Institute after interning for them as an Eastern Mennonite University student. She accompanied Lewis on six pilgrimages to Alabama.
Reflecting on the pilgrimages, Heavener said, “Walking the history of the Civil Rights Movement alongside him made the history books come alive. I was a 19-year-old white girl from Souderton, Pennsylvania, and through his stories, I suddenly had a totally different understanding of the history of racism in this country and the courage he had to stand up for what was right.”
Heavener remembers Lewis referring to himself as the “Boy from Troy,” who would practice preaching to his chickens.
“The legacy he leaves for me is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things and leave lasting ripples in this world … In all the years and interactions I had with him, he presented himself the same way each time. He was humble and showed no ego.”
She recalls Lewis speaking with President Barack Obama on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and then showing the same respect to a young man from Selma who walked up and asked him for a photograph.
“There was no difference in his mind in how he treated them. He viewed everyone as equals. Exactly what he had fought for throughout his life.” says Heavener.
Kimberly Schmidt is director of EMU’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center in Washington D.C. and helps to set up internships for student participants. Faith & Politics Institute has hosted 14 students, most of whom travelled on the pilgrimages, since 2008, and an unknown number before that time.
EMU News asked Schmidt and some of these alumni who met Lewis through the institute to share their memories of him. Here are a few responses on short notice:
I’ve been grieving Congressman John Lewis’s death which feels strange because I didn’t know him personally. But [for me as] an expatriate,* John Lewis was one of the few people that made me proud to be American. One of my most vivid memories of the Congressman was at a book launch for his graphic novel “March,” which tells his life story and other key civil rights events. While part of the room was filled with politicians, there were a fair amount of young adults and kids invited as well. When he began sharing his testimony, his eyes lit up as he reminisced about his youth and getting into ‘good trouble’. Throughout the pilgrimages I went on, he always made time to meet with young people and have real conversations about justice. One of the most important lessons I learned from Congressman John Lewis was that the fight for justice is not only a life-long commitment but one that must be shared with the next generations.
– Nika Hoefle ’16, who interned at the Faith & Politics Institute in 2014 and joined their South Carolina pilgrimage in 2016.
I tried to communicate with my students what a privilege and honor it was to speak with him personally … When I got to know him, he was soft-spoken, humble, and mostly a quiet presence. He spoke with conviction but never raised his voice, never postured, never sought publicity. As an intern on Capitol Hill just after my own graduation from college, his demeanor was quite a contrast to so many politicians. That made a strong impression.
– Kimberly Schmidt, co-director of the Washington Community Scholars’ Center.
The memory of Congressman Lewis that stands out for me was our visit to Parchman Prison (the Mississippi State Penitentiary) where he was incarcerated following his participation in the Freedom Rides. He, along with former Congressman Bob Filner—a fellow Freedom Rider—shared about their incarceration experiences in the chapel at Parchman. It was particularly powerful because I think it was the first time either man had returned to Parchman since their imprisonment. More generally, I recall members of Congress and other participants gravitating toward Congressman Lewis at our various stops in Mississippi because of the authority of his experience and accomplishments. We all wanted to get a chance to learn from his wisdom, and I’m glad to have had the brief opportunity to do so.
– Regina Wenger ’09, who interned at the Faith & Politics Institute in 2008.
*Editor’s note: Faith & Politics Institute was founded in 1991 to urge public officials to stay in touch with their faith and values as they shape public policy. The organization’s founder was Marian Franz, a Bethel College graduate who started Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington D.C. office with her husband, Delton. She also was the first director of the nonprofit organizations Dunamis (founded 1971), a Christian organization that lobbied policymakers, and the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund (founded 1981). Schmidt, also a Bethel alumna, says she counts Franz “among my mentors.” Another notable connection to Franz and FPI is through Daryl Byler, former executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding from 2013-19, who had also led the Washington D.C. MCC office.
More on interns at Faith & Politics Institute: