Thirteen summers ago I was a volunteer in a program that gave shelter in the basement of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to families experiencing temporary homelessness. Among our guests were a mother and her ten year old son named Zach. One evening, another volunteer, my friend Elizabeth Becker, gave Zach a copy of a biography of Congressman John Lewis, written for young people.
A few days later, when I bumped into my friend Susan Sedgewick, also a volunteer with the program, she suggested that it might be possible for us to take Zach to visit the Congressman. Two days later I was walking my dog and ran into yet another St. Mark’s friend, Rob Hall. He was putting his trash out but our quick conversation revealed that Rob had contacts in John Lewis’s office.
The next thing I knew, Rob, Zach and I were in the Cannon building in Congressman Lewis’s office. What I had thought would be a ten minute photo-op turned into an hour-long visit. John Lewis asked Zach what he was interested in and the two had a long conversation about basketball. They talked about school and hard work and then went on a tour of the office, pausing as the Congressman reminisced over memorabilia from the Civil Rights movement.
It had occurred to me that I might use the occasion of this visit to tell Lewis about the book I was writing about Rosenwald schools. I knew he had attended one in Alabama and I had even thought I might ask him if he would write the introduction for me. But he was focused on Zach and I decided not to intrude on that.
When it came time for us to leave, we asked the congressman if he would sign Zach’s book, John Lewis in the Lead, A Story of the Civil Rights Movement. On the book’s first page Lewis wrote “Keep the Faith,” and signed his name. Later, over lunch, I asked Zach what he thought that meant. Keep the Faith. He paused a moment, then said, a bit tentatively, “Never give up?” Yes, I said. That’s it. Never give up.
In the years since that day I have had the good fortune to meet John Lewis several more times. In Atlanta on a civil rights field trip led by the late Julian Bond, I was able to talk to Lewis and to give him a copy of the book. Just over a year ago I was part of a group that went to Lewis’s office to tell him about the project of creating a national historic site honoring Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald schools. Lewis was warm and friendly though clearly frail. He agreed to become a co-sponsor of the legislation that would authorize a special resource study of the projected park.
One morning, having just learned of Lewis’s death, I bumped into a neighbor who reminded me of the evening we had spent together three years ago when I hosted a salon dinner with Lewis at my house. She said it had been memorable and special and it certainly was. For me, though, the memory of John Lewis I cherish most is of the meeting in his office and the generosity of spirit he extended towards a young boy he had never met before and would, in all probability, never see again.
“Keep the Faith” and “Never Give Up” are words we all need to hear right now. I am so grateful to John Lewis for generously sharing himself with Zach and with all of us. The best way to honor his memory is to remember those wise words.
This story appeared in the August issue of the Capitol Hill Village newsletter. See the newsletter and learn about CHV at https://capitolhillvillage.org/