The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
In June 2015, I participated in a gala dinner of American Friends of Lubavitch in Washington, D.C. Seated at my table were the chief of the D.C. Fire Department, his deputy, two teenagers — Desmond and Davon — and their mother.
The event was festive, with light music playing and waiters serving delicious food and wine. The people at my table smiled politely, yet the expression in their own eyes reflected the depth of their sadness.
Just weeks earlier they had lost a husband, father and colleague. Lt. Kevin McRae, a 44-year-old firefighter, was one of the first people to respond to a fire in an apartment building on the morning of May 6, 2015. After ushering five people to safety, he collapsed and died. The dinner was to honor and celebrate his life, dedication and heroism.
I was sitting there trying to think of what I could do to comfort them on such a terrible loss. What could I do to uplift their spirits? How might I bring some hope to their shattered lives?
It was just then that I saw Congressman John Lewis from Georgia making his way into the hall. I immediately turned to Desmond and Davon. “Would you like to meet him?” I asked.
Desmond didn’t share my enthusiasm. “Why, who’s that?”
John Lewis, I explained, was the only living member of the Big 6: the courageous and visionary leaders during the height of the civil rights movement. He had his skull fractured when he marched in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday.” He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, appearing right before Martin Luther King Jr. uttered the famous words “I Have a Dream.”
Desmond’s face immediately lit up. He took his brother and walked over to Mr. Lewis. I was there to take a photo of them with this historic icon. Lewis was courteous and left them feeling empowered and lifted up. Their father had been a hero who made the ultimate sacrifice. Lewis was a different kind of hero that gave them a glimpse of how to navigate through the rest of their lives.
Lewis was never embittered by the losses that he and others suffered during the civil rights movement. He once said, “Once the struggle is over and the dust of discord is finally clear, only the power of love will remain.”
John Lewis was an individual with the courage to stand for what he knew to be true, and the wisdom to separate the wrongdoing from the wrongdoer — banishing the former and welcoming the latter, once free of hatred. Lewis realized that we cannot be truly united if our goal is to put others down. Instead of casting out his oppressors, Lewis sought to recast them as friends and allies.
In doing so, Lewis shared common ground with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, about whom Lewis said “I am sorry to say that I never got to meet the Rebbe. I know I would have liked him. I know Dr. King would have liked him.
After the 1991 Crown Heights riots, with racial tensions high, New York City Mayor David Dinkins visited the Rebbe.
“I’m confident that with the good people of all of our communities, from both sides, we will come together and do those things necessary to protect everyone,” Dinkins said.
“(We are) one side,” the Rebbe replied.
It is this ideal which Congressman Lewis spent a lifetime advancing: that “We are one people with one family ... we all live in the same house ... we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
As we remember Congressman Lewis’ legacy, let us recommit ourselves to the vision of one people, united.
Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin is the outreach director at Chabad Tucson.
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