The controversy over John Lewis’s comment about President-elect Trump not being a “legitimate president” and subsequently deciding not to attend the inauguration has created quite a stir. But I think I understand why Lewis, who is known by his colleagues as the “Conscience of the House,” made such a remark and decision.
My understanding stems from his unexpected attendance at our synagogue. It was a Friday morning in January 1997 when I received a call from Congressman Bob Matsui’s chief of staff. Bob would be hosting Congressman John Lewis for the Martin Luther King Day events that weekend in Sacramento and the Georgia congressman and civil rights leader asked if he could attend a synagogue in the area. He didn’t want to speak, just to join us in the pews. I suggested that the congressman share some words from our pulpit before the recitation of the prayer for our country. I also mentioned that we would be celebrating the bar mitzvah of Stan Berrin, son of Dr. Rob Berrin and his wife Susanne.
After Bob Matsui introduced his colleague, you could hear a pin drop. The 500 worshippers were mesmerized by John Lewis’s eloquence. Without any prepared text or notes, he spoke softly but deliberately, sharing his story of growing up in Alabama, the son of a sharecropper.
He spoke about having to attend segregated public schools. He described not having a toilet in his house, having to go outside to an outhouse. He told us of the racial discrimination that he experienced and how he could relate to the Jewish people’s struggles with anti-Semitism over the centuries. He shared that he had been beaten severely and was arrested 40 times for participating in or leading non-violent civil rights protests.
When he concluded his brief remarks, he turned to the young 13-year-old and wished him “mazel tov” for celebrating this important milestone of his life, and expressed the hope that he would grow up in a society that has learned the lessons of the past.
So, while people may agree or disagree with Congressman Lewis’s decision to diminish the president-elect’s ‘legitimacy’ and not attend the inauguration, his words and decision, I believe, were made by his conscience.
Nineteenth-century writer Jean Paul hit the nail on the head when he said, “The conscience of children is formed by the influences that surround them; their notions of good and evil are the result of the moral atmosphere they breathe.” For too many years, the moral atmosphere in Lewis’s life was contaminated by bigotry and racism. And maybe he feels that the progress we have made over the years is at a standstill, and that we have not yet learned the lessons of the past. I hope we have.
As I reflected in that moment when he spoke to my congregation, I marveled at how far we have come as a country in striving for civil rights. I shed tears of joy when our country elected the first African American president. And I shed tears of sadness today to see our country so divided. I pray that we will one day wake up and see the ‘other’ as the divinely human beings we all are and that our leaders in government, law enforcement, houses of worship, and the workplace will model the kind of behavior that will inspire us just as John Lewis has inspired us during his life and career with courage and determination to fight for equality and dignity for all.