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Opinion: Two men who showcased our beloved community

ajc.com

Credit: Staff

Credit: Staff

Spending time out and about with U.S. Congressman Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian was to watch the beloved community in action. Everyone was star-struck with the possibility of touching history. They would yell from afar, run to get near, and bustle around them with the joy of being in the company of goodness. Greeting these extraordinary figures is as close as most of us would come to touching “the arc of the moral universe.”

Among my fondest memories of running for the U.S. Senate was picking up C.T. Vivian for lunch at Paschal’s. He came bounding out of his garage, which was packed to the brim with thousands of his books, energetic and cheerful as ever. He was an intellectual, ignited by passion, guided by faith, and propelled by action. He carried genuine kindness, with his prophetic voice, a wry smile, a wonderful laugh, and a literal “twinkle” in his eye.

The last time I was with Congressman Lewis, it was in the empty lounge of an Atlanta airport hotel along with our friend, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker. Every bartender, guest and doorman recognized him and called out a greeting of love or asked for a selfie. The Congressman would meet each person with untiring grace.

They made their first mark, as young leaders of the Civil Rights movement and as colleagues of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but they never stopped working for change. And most importantly, they never stopped sharing their wisdom with the next generation of leaders.

Michelle Nunn
Michelle Nunn

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The last time we visited with C.T. Vivian was when he spoke to CARE’s global leadership team. It was a discussion about building movements for justice, and how we could apply his experiences to our work around the globe to mobilize and empower communities. He kept imploring our team to explore and ask: what would you die for?

The Congressman also frequently joined us at CARE, including our 2015 CARE National Conference. He too left us all with a powerful message to never give up, never give in and to keep the faith. A call to action that is so central to our work fighting global poverty, and now a global pandemic.

It is my profound hope we can all share and carry their leadership lessons in our work together here in Georgia, the nation and around the world.

Nonviolence

They, like their friend Dr. King, truly believed that change could come and would come through nonviolent demonstration and protest, and believed in it as a philosophy, a movement and a way of life. In recent weeks, across so many of the Black Lives Matter marches and protests following George Floyd’s death, I see the mark of their example.

Faith

They were both men of faith - guided by spirit and the biblical values of justice, mercy and love. Their devotion was Christian, but their outlook was firmly rooted in the belief of things unseen. They believed in the possibility of creating something new even when the reality around them – the brutality and clubs of police officers, the derision and hatred of their fellow citizens, an entrenched centuries-old system of injustice – made it impossible to see. They worked with faith until their final days, against what could often seem impossible odds.

Humility

In their later years, they were genuine celebrities - recognized and approached wherever they went. They approached every encounter with grace, born out of a genuine and deep humility. They were true servant leaders - tireless in pursuit of the cause of justice but completely uninterested in their own aggrandizement or in the trappings of fame or power. They were grounded in purpose, transcendent of self.

Love:

Most of all, the currency of C.T. Vivian and John Lewis was love. The belief that it could prevail, that it was not only a life force, but a force to fight with and overcome evil and injustice. They radiated love – of family, of their beloved wives, who both pre-deceased them, and of their neighbors. They were historically grand figures, but they walked with millions of fellow "marchers" as neighbors.

My family woke up the day after their deaths to find our streets lined with red, white, and blue bunting in honor of their lives. As Georgians, we were so lucky to walk with these towering figures of history, who were not only admired from afar, but loved by so many up close.

Michelle Nunn is president and CEO of CARE USA.