Twenty years ago when seminary chapel attendance was a virtue, the president of our alma mater would often conclude the service by inviting students and chapel guests to meet the day’s speaker at the bottom of the platform steps so we could “one day tell our grandchildren that we touched him.”
It was at the bottom of those steps that we shook hands with Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr., Dr. Charles Stanley, Dr. Jerry Vines, Dr. Morris Chapman, Evangelist Bailey Smith, Dr. James Merritt, and a host of other ‘heroes of the so-called Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. This was, of course, in the pre-COVID-19 days when you could shake hands or tell people that you had “touched” someone.
Years later while working as the senior speechwriter and investigative analyst for a powerful congressional committee chairman, we would often casually run into legendary policymakers carrying their own trays or sitting alone in the Rayburn or Longworth cafeterias. There, circling around these men unaware of the historic import of their national service, were hosts of bright-eyed interns and twenty something staffers usually discussing the whereabouts of the afternoon’s best Capitol Hill happy hour.
On more than one occasion, we took our tray to a table and sheepishly asked if we could join one of these Members of Congress. There was the day in the middle of bicameral negotiations over the conference report of Dodd-Frank that we took our seat next to one of the bill’s eponymous co-sponsors, Rep. Barney Frank, and chatted superficially about the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure in the nation’s lower chamber.
On another occasion, we enjoyed a private breakfast with former Vice President Richard Cheney, wherein we talked about the Minority Report of the Select Committee on Iran Contra, which is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand what became known as the Bush Doctrine.
And then there was the day we asked Rep. John Lewis for the privilege of sitting next to him during a quick lunch in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building. He sat alone with his lunch and some papers on one of those early weekdays when business is slow and the House staff are enjoying the final few moments before Members start arriving for the first suspension votes of the week.
We told Rep. Lewis of our own ministry background and seminary education, and we talked about Fannie Lou Hamer, whose story we had only recently studied as part of a doctoral seminar on American civil religion taught by Dr. Barry Hankins of Baylor University.
John Lewis lit up in amazement – and perhaps amusement – that before him was seated a white Southern Baptist minister whose ancestors “owned” slaves well after the Emancipation Proclamation and who wanted to talk about an oft-forgotten Civil Rights pioneer whose name is shamefully absent the history texts used in Texas public school systems.
And then we talked about the gospel and the demands of justice that a first century Jewish carpenter’s three year ministry puts on those who would carry his cross into the 21st century. Rep. Lewis asked if we’d ever been to Selma, and invited us to join the annual trip he sponsored to walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge with generations who’d never heard of Bloody Sunday.
At one point in our conversation, the reality set in: I was sitting but a few feet from a man who’d been a few feet from Martin Luther King, Jr. when he gave the “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The irony was not lost on me.
Here was a man who’d been routinely denied a place to sit in “whites-only” lunchrooms in the South; yet he was allowing me – without hesitation – to sit with him in the basement cafeteria of one of the most powerful places on earth. And he spoke to me not as a subordinate congressional staffer, but as a brother and a friend.
John Lewis was like that.
Years later, I was working for another Member of Congress who sat on the House Committee on Ways and Means. In a flurry of legislative activity related to Chairman Dave Camp’s tax reform efforts, I stood in the back of the House Chamber near the middle aisle mere feet away from Rep. John Lewis. After a few moments, I went up to shake his hand.
“Congressman,” I said, “I’m not sure if you remember…”
He interrupted. “You’re the preacher.”
“Was a preacher,” I joked.
“We never stop doing the Lord’s work,” he replied.
And he never did.
Rest in peace, Congressman.