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July 29th: Remembering John Lewis and the Cause of Beloved Community

It goes almost without saying, the United States, the anti-racism movement, the Congress, and the American Baptist world lost a hero and a giant with the death of John Lewis. As the many remembrances recounted, Lewis was a leader of the Civil Rights movement, one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, the hero nearly became a martyr on Bloody Sunday, when his activism of non-violent resistance led him to face the deputized racism of mounted troopers, tear gas, and night sticks on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 


According to the historian Howard Zinn, the team organizing the March on Washington, afraid of antagonizing the Kennedy administration, cut a line from Lewis’s speech that day. That line was the question, “Which side is the federal government on?” To his great credit and to all our benefit, Lewis spent most of the rest of his career trying to answer that question in an affirming and just way. Becoming the Conscience of the Congress as a representative from Atlanta, Lewis worked to legislate for voting rights, racial justice, elimination of war, health care for all, and LGBT rights. He led the congressional sit in for gun control after the Pulse Nightclub Shooting. And he spearheaded the effort over 15 years’ time for the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of the Smithsonian Institution. 


I say, “it goes almost without saying,” because it still needs to be said: John Lewis was a hero to be remembered. It also needs to be said: we need such heroes, perhaps now more than ever. Again tear gas is in our streets. Again racism is reorganizing itself to violently claim a hold on our people and on our public spaces. Again our government is failing to act, and those in congress who strive for conscientious and just governance are too often thwarted. And as the election approaches, again we need to make central the cause of the Beloved Community. 


John Lewis was born in 1940. This means that when he boarded the bus for the first Freedom Rides, he was just 21. When he took up leadership at SNCC and spoke on the Washington Mall, he was only 23. To remember John Lewis is in part to remember a new generation of American leaders, young citizens who were committed to claiming their rightful place in American society after too many centuries of being told “Wait!” He was an example of what can happen when activism and demographics intersect: a whole generation, numerically large and thirsty for justice, organized to make a difference. Lewis never missed an opportunity to call new generations to service, always encouraging young staffers and activists in the cause.


Taking a cue from his inspiration, the ABCMC is re-conceiving the youth conference we had planned for last May. Aiming for something in the late fall or early next year, we are planning an online conference for youth and the adults who serve them. It will be an opportunity for youth to share and process their griefs and traumas, to express their hopes and passions, and to raise up their prophetic vision for a more economically just, racially reconciled, and environmentally wholesome world. Planning is still in the works, but it is important to speak aloud again the dream, with more details to be rolled out soon. Stay tuned. 

I also want to share few words on the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our churches are struggling with question of in-person meetings for business and worship. I continue to believe this is a dangerous idea, even as I appreciate how hungry our souls are to be together again soon. Church services have often proven to be super-spreader events. I counsel every pastor, diaconate, and church board that asks that they think long and hard about taking such a step and be prepared with clear guidelines, procedures, rules, and limits. 

I would suggest the following concrete steps for churches who wish to move toward in-person meeting: 

  • Contact your church’s insurance carrier and double check your coverage. They will likely require you to get all attendees and participants to sign waivers holding the church (and them) harmless for any illness they contract there. 

  • Outdoors is safer than indoors. Either way, proper measures to ensure physical distancing should be observed and required. 

  • Make plain what your rules are and make sure greeters, ushers, and other officials know how the church wants to handle people who do not follow them. Even the grandmother of the church, whom everyone hugs, can spread the virus; and few people are more susceptible than she to its worst ravages. 

  • Remember that even if the church “opens,” many members will choose to remain home. Have a plan for how they will continue to feel included. 

  • Instead of thinking about your worship as “in person with a live-stream component,” think about it as “live-stream worship service with an in-person component.” Make the service more accessible for those who remain home. Allow those who attend in person to also watch it on live stream on their devices. 

The pandemic is testing all our patience. But in a time like this, too, we remember the counsel of our brother Paul, who encouraged us to “run with patience the race that is set before us.” Please, be careful and safe and healthy. 

Rev. David Gregg

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American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago

(773) 634-1495

4401 W. Irving Park Rd.

Chicago, IL 60661

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