“Dream and Labor”

When Congressman John Lewis passed away in July 2020, Rev. James Lawson gave a eulogy memorializing our beloved friend at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. As our nation continues to mourn Rev. Lawson’s own death last month, his words are resonating deeply again right now. Rev. Lawson was honoring “the conscience of Congress” during another perilous political moment, and wanted to tell us what he believed our nation needed to do in order to move forward. In his words: “We do not need bipartisan politics if we are going to celebrate the life of John Lewis. We need the Constitution to come alive! We hold these truths to be self-evident, we need the Congress and the presidents to work unfalteringly on behalf of every boy and every girl so that every baby born on these shores will have access to the tree of life!”

Rev. Lawson continued: “Let all the people of the U.S.A. determine that we will not be quiet as long as any child dies in the first year of life in the United States. We will not be quiet as long as the largest poverty group in our nation are women and children. We will not be quiet as long as our nation continues to be the most violent culture in the history of humankind. We will not be quiet as long as our economy is shaped not by freedom but by plantation capitalism that continues to cause domination and control rather than access and liberty and equality for all!

“The forces of spiritual wickedness are strong in our land because of our history. We have not created them. John Lewis did not create them. We inherited them. But it’s our task to see those spiritual forces. I have named them racism, sexism, violence, plantation capitalism. Those poisons still dominate far too many of us, in many different ways . . . Do not let our own hearts drink any of that poison. Instead, drink the truth of the life force. If we would honor and celebrate John Lewis’s life, let us then recommit our souls, our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our strength to the continuing journey to dismantle the wrong in our midst, and to allow a space for the new Earth and new heaven to emerge.”

Rev. Lawson then recited Langston Hughes’s Poem “I Dream a World,” adding a few words as he went along like woman, boy, girl, and humankind:

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind—
Of such I dream, my world!

He closed by saying, “Celebrate life. Dream and labor. For Atlanta and Los Angeles and the United States and a world. That is to celebrate the spirit and the heart and the mind and soul of John Lewis, and to walk with him through the galaxies, seeking equality, liberty, justice and the beloved community for all.”

Dream and labor. During a July Fourth holiday this year when many Americans are thinking deeply about our nation’s founding principles and how they will be protected and carried forward, Rev. Lawson’s words about John Lewis’s legacy are now his legacy too. We need the Constitution to come alive. We need it to be a self-evident truth that every child and young person in our nation deserves access to the tree of life. We need to keep fighting against the forces sowing division and systematically working to dismantle progress towards equality and justice for all. We need the beloved community and the new world we have long dreamed of and the country our founding ideals promised, and we need to keep laboring to get there.