John Lewis “loved America until America learned to love him back,” Baptist pastor Ebenezer said at a civil rights hero’s funeral Thursday in Atlanta.
The private funeral, at which former President Barack Obama will praise, began at 11 a.m. in a church once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We have come to say goodbye to our friend in these difficult days,” said the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor. “Come on, let the people celebrate, let the angels rejoice … John Lewis, the boy from Troy, the conscience of Congress.”;
Lewis, who represented Atlantis in the House of Representatives after serving as a young leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, died on July 17 after months of battling pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.
In addition to Obama’s remarks, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton spoke at the funeral, which will conclude the six-day memorial service for Lewis in several cities.
Bush said Lewis was “called to be a minister” at a young age and spoke of his concern for chickens when he was younger. He joked that Lewis once said that “his first community of chickens listened to him more carefully than some of his colleagues in Congress.”
The former president went on to say, “John Lewis believed in the Lord, he believed in humanity, and he believed in America.”
Clinton said of Lewis, “He never lost his heart … He kept moving.”
“It’s important that everyone who loved him remembers that he was a man after all,” he said. “A man, like all other people, was born of strengths, which he used to the maximum when many did not. Born of weaknesses, he worked hard to win when many could not.”
“It made it even more in my mind,” Clinton said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was tearful when she mentioned that Lewis lay in the state on the same platform made in 1865 to hold the body of President Abraham Lincoln.
Like Lincoln, she said, Lewis was spiritual and holy, but also a very good politician.
“When he spoke, people listened. “When he led people, they imitated,” she said.
Activist James Lawson, former Atlanta mayor William Craig Campbell and Lewis’ niece also spoke. President Donald Trump will not attend.
Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., said a prayer at the service and called Lewis a “nonviolent warrior who fought for true peace.”
“We are very grateful, O God, that he has lived among us for four years and has demonstrated on this bridge that physical strength does not correspond to mental strength,” she said.
After the funeral, burial will take place in South-View Cemetery, where Lewis will be laid to rest next to his wife Lillian.
Hours before the funeral, The New York Times published an essay written by Lewis shortly before he died. He wanted it to be published on the day of his funeral.
“While my time here is over, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me,” he wrote in response to recent protests at home and abroad over the deaths of George Floyd, Breon Taylor and Reishard. Brooks, who were all black.
“You have filled me with hope for the next chapter of great American history, when you used your strength to change our society,” he wrote. “Millions of people, motivated simply by compassion, have placed the burden of division. Throughout the country and the world, you have postponed race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”
Lewis recalled that when he was young and looking, he heard King’s voice on the “old radio.”
“He talked about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence,” Lewis wrote. “He said we are all complicit when we suffer injustice.”
He concluded his essay by saying, “Although I may not be here with you, I urge you to respond to the highest calling of your heart and to stand up for what you truly believe.”
Earlier this week, Lewis was in a state in the US Capitol Rotunda, where a bipartisan group of deputies and members of the public respected. Ceremonies were also held in Selma and his hometown of Troy, Alabama.