Washington, DC – July 18, 2020 – The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) joins the nation and world in mourning the loss of Congressman John Robert Lewis, even as we honor the gift that he was and celebrate a life well-lived. He was not only a 17-term member of Congress but also a civil rights icon and American hero whose life exemplified servant leadership and faithful public witness. He inspired generations with his courage and optimism, and worked tirelessly to steer our nation to live up to its most noble ideals. Indeed, by his many sacrifices and bold activism, Congressman Lewis bent the long arc of the moral universe toward justice.
Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, co-chair of NCC’s Racial Justice Task Force, shared her thoughts on Congressman Lewis’ legacy. “I owe a debt of gratitude to Congressman John Lewis. He gave new meaning to the ways we work for racial justice and his words always energized me to try to do something for the cause of building the beloved community,” she said.
For Congressman Lewis his activism was motivated by his faith: “The civil rights movement was based on faith. Many of us who were participants in this movement saw our involvement as an extension of our faith. We saw ourselves doing the work of the Almighty. Segregation and racial discrimination were not in keeping with our faith, so we had to do something.” And do something he did. Congressman Lewis was arrested more than 40 times and spent his life advocating for civil and human rights for all people. He was one of the first Freedom Riders and encouraged others to get into “good trouble” in the pursuit of justice. In 2016, he even staged a sit-in on the House floor in an effort to force a vote on gun control.
“For some making ‘good trouble’ meant walking across the bridge in the face of horrifying opposition. His life inspired me to become a bridge to help connect people to fight against racism with my body, mind and soul,” said Rev. Girton-Mitchell, who is also the Founder and President of Grace and Race Ministries, Inc., an ecumenical ministry to help foster racial understanding, healing, and reconciliation.
Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, NCC Governing Board Chair and President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, said, “A giant and a hero has left us. I mourn his passing, but give thanks for his courageous and exemplary life at the front lines of Justice and celebrate his eternal rest with his beloved Jesus.”
Born to parents who were sharecroppers, Congressman Lewis knew at an early age that segregation was wrong. He was so inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. As the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. Congressman Lewis organized and helped lead numerous nonviolent protests, including the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama for voting rights. During this march, known as “Bloody Sunday,” Congressman Lewis was brutally beaten and had his skull cracked. Not to be deterred, Congressman Lewis and Dr. King planned another march across the bridge. This time they contacted the NCC’s Commission on Religion and Race for help. Numerous NCC clergy and other faith leaders traveled to Selma and walked with Congressman Lewis, Dr. King and many others across that bridge with the world watching.
NCC’s Commission on Race and Religion would strengthen ties with SNCC following the protests in Selma, including helping with voter registration efforts. In 1965, when Congressman Lewis was chair of SNCC, he narrated a film about the NCC’s Delta Ministry in Mississippi. Called, “We Mean to Stay,” the film showcased the work of the ministry, which was initiated as a long-term program of community development for the poor in the state.
NCC President and General Secretary Jim Winkler, said, “John Lewis was a hero of mine. As a trustee of the Faith & Politics Institute I had the opportunity to accompany him on a Congressional Pilgrimage through Alabama and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. I saw the respect and affection his Congressional colleagues had for him which was based on his experience in the movement, his ironclad commitment to justice and peace, and his integrity and honor. We will all miss him.” said.
The work for voting rights and for racial justice remain. We will honor Congressman Lewis’ life and legacy by redoubling our efforts to end racism and encourage voter registration and participation while fighting voter suppression in all of its forms. By doing this, we know his life and work will not have been in vain but will have been a catalyst for lasting change in our nation.
“As we question monuments made of concrete and mortar, Congressman Lewis’ life was a living monument to exemplary prophetic witness in the public square. His life was a reflection of what God requires of us from Micah 6:8, ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,’” reflected Rev. Aundreia Alexander, NCC’s Associate General Secretary for Action and Advocacy.
“We have lost a great warrior for justice, a kind and gentle soul and humble servant of God,” said Rev. Alexander.
Congressman Lewis’ family, friends, and colleagues remain in our prayers during this difficult time. May his memory be eternal.