Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about the legacy of John Lewis. As a son of sharecroppers, John grew up on a farm in Alabama. In a more recent interview with Krista Tippett, he recalled how by the age of five he believed he would grow up to be a preacher. His first congregation consisted of the chickens that were his responsibility to care for and feed.
From the beginning, it seemed God had big plans for John's life. By the time he was fifteen, he heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio and preached his first sermon to a human audience. At seventeen, he met Rosa Parks. At nineteen, he became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. As a seminarian student, he organized sit ins and studied philosophy and practiced the discipline of nonviolent resistance. John was one of the original thirteen freedom riders and was one of the "big six" who organized the March on Washington and the marches from Selma to Montgomery.
Despite almost being beaten to death by mounted troops after crossing the Edmund Pettis bridge, being cursed at, spit on, ridiculed, criticized, mocked and scorned throughout his life, John never gave up standing up and fighting to his dying day against the injustices he saw. One of his personal mantras he shared with the world was "When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something." Yet, this was not simply a statement he made; it was a code by which he lived his life and challenged others to do the same. This was his ministry, his call, his life's work to do as the scriptures command to "speak the truth in love."
To speak up, to say something, and to do something can be a frightening task. To speak truth in love, especially to power is a risky business. It requires courage to listen and pay attention to the One who places the uneasiness feeling in our Spirit and the trust to know that the same One who nudges us will be the One who will give us the words to speak even if our knees quake and our voices shake. In the United Church of Christ, we claim God is still speaking, but can we claim that we are still listening, speaking up and doing something when we know something is not right or fair. Lately, this is a question I have asked myself quite a bit.
Something I have learned is Christ-like courage takes practice. Much like when you went from crawling to walking, you learned you can only walk taller and stronger when you're willing to risk some bumps, bruises and falls. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. The more you risk speaking up and doing something in small ways, the more empowered you will be to stand up and take action in big ways. I believe this is how God works. I believe God works through those who are willing to stand up and make changes so that those in need, those who are oppressed, and those who are being harmed can experience the abundance, freedom, and peace God desires and intends for all of God's children. When we see something that we know is not right or not fair, may we have the courage to trust God will gives us the words to speak and the ability to do something.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister