An Ode to the Long Walker, Congressman John Lewis

Kelli Dulan, Director of Leadership and Learning

A hero now rests. Congressman John Lewis was laid to rest on Thursday, July 30, in the Southern soil where he so valiantly fought and won many battles for social justice. To borrow a phrase from our brothers at National Compadres Network, Congressman Lewis was the ultimate “long walker” who has traveled this road with us to freedom for most of his life. He was, by every measure, a beautiful embodiment of our sacred humanity deeply rooted in love for his fellow man.

Congressman Lewis penned “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” a final essay that he asked to be published on the day of his funeral. He wrote of his pride and hope in witnessing the recent coming together of Americans from all walks of life, and how encouraged he was by the young and rising activists making “good trouble” by standing for truth and justice. We agree, Congressman. You have passed the mantle on to good and capable hands. How do we know? Because our Forward Promise Village of short walkers, medium walkers, and long walkers from across the country and all walks of life daily demonstrate the work of redemption.

When COVID hit, we convened our grantees virtually to find out what was happening in the communities where they served and how they were responding. We learned that they had sprung into action to address the crisis head-on, executing rapid response plans on top of their primary work. And we worked with them and the Foundation to support the immediate needs of their community, loosening budget constraints with flexibility and additional resources.

Then Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while out for a run and we learned about the senseless killing of Breonna Taylor. While we were still reeling, George Floyd was executed in full view of the public and we learned of others, like Rayshard Brooks and Elijah McCain, shaking us all to our cores and sparking uprisings and racial unrest around the world. We, again, checked in with our grantees to see how they were doing. With great vulnerability and candor, they shared their experiences as leaders amidst this dual pandemic of COVID-19 and police brutality.

“We’ve been here before. Will this time really be different,” they pondered? Some had been through both L.A. riots in the ’60s and the ’90s and reflected upon the fear and intimidation they felt when faced with heavily armed national guards on the burning streets. And decades later, as prominent leaders and healers in their communities, they admitted that seeing what happened to George Floyd triggered that pain again. “I was surprised to feel that the trauma was still in my body.”

A colleague shared the stress and tension these occurrences were causing in their own family and the challenge of navigating it. Another shared that they were “challenged by questions from my white colleagues about how I’m doing and how they can help.” The group offered ideas for approaching and coping with these difficult racial moments and conversations. Ultimately, the consensus was that it’s fruitful to prioritize the right to feel one’s own anger and rage and to self-protect outweighed the need to, once again, “take care of them.

“You get to say no. You get to say not today.”

Ignorance is no longer a valid excuse for anyone. Our white colleagues, friends, and family need to put in some work to bring solutions to the table.

“I am afraid,” said another, “really afraid of what is going to happen [in Tulsa].” It was then that a couple of the brethren on the call offered their medicine to the group, a gift of cedar and the burning of sage. “Sometimes just naming it helps. You gotta name it,” Dr. Howard Stevenson shared. “Where are you feeling it? How is it affecting you? You get to feel what you feel. You get to say it.” There were long moments of silence, the wiping of tears, and deep sighs.

I looked at the Zoom screen and took in the beauty of this Forward Promise Village of  organizers, healers, doctors, violence disrupters, artists, and systems and policy advocates—a beautiful rainbow of Black, Brown, Native, and Asian men and women spanning two or three generations. These leaders gathered in a moment of great crisis to share in their pain and struggle. They held space for and offered healing for one another with honesty and vulnerability in their shared, sacred humanity.

And then, a brief interruption when one said, “I’m going to have to jump off this call to…” essentially get back on the road to continue the long walk. In that moment, hope sprung up like a fountain and we knew that the arc of the moral universe was still being bent in a mighty way towards justice.

The call wrapped up with an elder reminding everyone to rest and take care of themselves. He shared the wisdom gleaned from his grandmother As we call upon the ancestors and walk in their footsteps, we must also do what they did to take care of themselves. I imagine that Congressman Lewis knew this to be true. That is why he did not let a spirit of bitterness or hate take over his heart but walked and talked with love, peace, and humility. That is why he stayed closely connected with his loved ones no matter how busy he was.

Many on that check in call espoused the need to call upon the ancestors for strength.  And, now, we have gained another to call upon in Rep. John Lewis. We are thankful that, before he took his final rest, he bore witness to the fruits of his labor and saw a glimpse of his legacy in those that have taken up his torch. And we are proud to walk alongside many torch bearers within our Forward Promise Village. We honor you. We thank you.