The Pastor’s Pen: January 5, 2020

People of faith around the world are praying for civil rights icon and man of peace, Congressman John Lewis, as he battles stage IV pancreatic cancer. I met Congressman Lewis when I pastored in Nashville, Tennessee. He was the keynote speaker at a banquet supporting the American Baptist College (ABC) of Nashville, his alma mater. We sat on the dais together and throughout the evening he spoke warmly of the many workshops he led at First Baptist Capitol Hill where I then pastored. He spoke also of the lunch counter sit-ins where he led workshops and the difficulty he experienced after conducting the workshops in making sure all involved in the demonstrations maintained a nonviolent posture no matter how hateful and dehumanizing the racist opposition. Congressman Lewis started his speech that evening at ABC by recounting his days as a boy practicing his sermons to the chickens on his farm. That story would become a hallmark account in his book Walking with the Wind. When our local congressman of Tennessee sent me to Washington to attend Nelson Mandela’s address to the U. S. Congress, as I wandered the halls of Capitol Hill, I ran into Congressman Lewis. Even though I was not a voting member of his District, he invited me to his office and treated me with exceptional kindness.

Years later after I relocated to Washington and assumed the pastorate of Shiloh, we invited the Congressman to deliver the commemorative Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon in January 2008. A year later (January 2009), he graciously consented to preach the historic sermon in honor of our celebration of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. In September 2013, we invited Mr. Lewis to preach our 150th anniversary sermon, which he recalled to a reporter from the New Yorker magazine as one of the most memorable experiences of his long and illustrious career. While sitting behind Congressman Lewis in the pulpit during the anniversary service, I noticed a long scar on the back of his head. I will never forget wondering if the scar was from the beating he received during a protest march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama (1965). It is one of the many brutalities he suffered for justice. We will always be grateful that he came to Shiloh and shared the amazing indomitable zeal of his ministry. I will always have a deep fondness for Congressman Lewis. He is, and has always been, a man for all seasons. If this illness signals the coming of winter in his life, we will always be grateful for the way he has used every season of his existence to glorify God.

Congressman Lewis plans to continue to serve the people of his 5th Congressional District of Georgia. He is quoted as saying: “I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life…but I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.” As Mr. Lewis battles this cancer, I ask every member of our congregation to pray for him without ceasing. We will also pray collectively that God will be with him every step of the way as he battles this fight, the fight of his life.