Paul Raushenbush: Dwelling in the Cathedral of John Lewis' Spirit

Official Portrait of John Lewis By U.S. Congress from Wiki Commons

I’m imagining Rep. John Lewis’ spirit today, just a few days after his bodily life ended. I want to take time here, taking my hat off, entering with humility and hope, removing my shoes, gazing with wonder at the spirit’s great cathedral filled with multi-colored light streaming in through illuminating windows, each reflecting another story in his life.

And what a life. From the beginning to the end he placed his body where he was needed most, challenging the most virulent disease of racism and was determined to be a cure. John Robert Lewis the Freedom Rider, the Civil Rights Orator, the Strategic Activist, the Breaker of Oppressive Rules, the Non-Violent Protester, the Bridge Crosser, the ‘Good Troubler’, the Vote Demander, the Righteous Legislator, the Believer in Love, the Child of God, the Follower of Jesus.

In the Cathedral, the Mosque, the Synagogue, the Temple, the Gurdwara, of John Robert Lewis’ spirit, the doors are open wide to all the people, the wisdom of every tradition is shared, where people of every nation offer a collective prayer for America, one that demands repentance, atonement, and reparation, delivered with a deep, enduring love for humanity and a belief in the power to change. It ends with a call for conversion, to come to the altar of Justice, with the promise of peace.

Oh, and the music! “Without music, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings,” Lewis once said. In the Cathedral of Lewis’ spirit, the music binds the community in solidarity, awakens hearts with joy and inspiring radical praise-singing: “I woke up this morning, with my mind staying on Freedom;” “We Shall Overcome;” “But if God got us then we gon’ be alright, Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.” Music created by the people for the people, rising up, mixed with prayer, lifting the vaulted ceilings up and off, the mountains and the hills joining the song, and the trees clapping their hands, reaching up to the heavens where God and all God’s angels join the Chorus singing Liberation!

In the Cathedral of Lewis’ spirit there is learning - from the lectern, around the circle, people hear the teaching of non-violence, the path of love. Written on the walls, and engraved on the floor are the example of Jesus, the method of Gandhi, the philosophy of Thoreau, the teachings of the great religions, and the commitment to take time, to study, to be transformed to be convicted to a lifetime commitment to the way of peace and the way of love. No matter what happens. Whether beaten, whether arrested and thrown in jail, committing our lives to a new way, a better way.

In the Great Cathedral of Lewis’ spirit are many rooms, intimate spaces for encounters of reconciliation. In one of those rooms, there is a stained-glass window that tells a particular story of one occasion in 1961, when a group of young white men attacked John Lewis and his seatmate, a young white man when they tried to enter a so-called ‘white waiting room.’ These guys jumped them, beat them, and left them lying in a pool of blood.

Almost 50 years later, one of the guys who beat John Lewis, came to his office in Congress and said, “Mr. Lewis, I beat you, I attacked you, I want to apologize, will you forgive me?” And his son, who had been encouraging his father to do this for some time, his son gave Lewis a hug, the father gave Lewis a hug, they both started crying. And Lewis hugged them back and said: “Yes, I forgive you.” And all three of them cried and continued to see one another and call one another brother.

And Lewis’ own reflections on this incident are inscribed underneath the window:

“And that is what the movement is about. We are one people, we are one family, we are one house. One love.”

Even as I get comfortable in my imaginary Cathedral, John Robert Lewis’ spirit says it’s time to go - get out into the streets, into the legislative halls, the organizing rooms, the schools, the Interfaith Spaces and do the work that religion is meant to do. “The Church should be a headlight, not a taillight” Lewis reminds me. Telling me again: “The church should be out front leading the way. If you are going to live up to the teachings of the Great Teacher and follow in the tradition of the great leaders of faith, you have to be out there, shining the light, preaching the Good News, and living the Good News. You have to make it real.”

As we leave the sacred hall we hear Psalm 27, ringing in our hearts like giant bells reminding us of sacred time, as stirring as the Call to Prayer, bracing like a Shofar: The Lord is my light, and my salvation; He is the strength of my life. Whom shall I fear?” So, I join the other humans, marching, dancing, praising, shouting as we join one another, thankful for the great spirit of John Robert Lewis, that lives on, in Power, in Peace, and in all of us who continue his work, to make this world more just, more loving, and to do our part in the ongoing work to create the Beloved Community.


Paul Raushenbush is Senior Advisor for Public Affairs and Innovation at IFYC (Interfaith Youth Core) promoting a narrative of positive pluralism in America, while researching and developing cutting edge interfaith leadership. He is the Editor of Interfaith America.

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This post originally appeared on, July 21, 2020, and is used with permission.