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Saying goodbye to Congressman John Lewis

You never really know when you’re seeing someone for the very last time. Remember to make every moment count, they say. Remember to tell them you love them, they say. But when you meet someone who is so loving and so kind, you don’t have to remember a thing.

I remember the first time I met Congressman John Lewis. It was at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. He was leading a Faith and Politics Civil Rights Pilgrimage for congressional leaders, as he did almost every year as part of his commemoration of the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, in which he and others were beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

That day in Montgomery, as the delegation made its way from the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and neared us, I saw him. Flanked by children carrying a wreath to be laid on the Memorial, the congressman looked somber and serious.

When I approached to lead the group to their places around the Memorial, he smiled and said, “Thank you.” I watched and listened in awe as he talked about seminal events in his life that are etched on the Memorial, which honors 40 martyrs of the civil rights movement. Before he departed that day, I hugged him and said, “Thank you.”

As part of his “Celebration of Life,” the congressman is taking a final tour through his native Alabama this weekend. I have to be there. One last time at Brown Chapel. One last time across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One last time together in Montgomery.

We’ve placed a wreath in his memory at the Memorial. Later today, I’ll position a poster with a picture of him at the spot where he once stood. We’ll gather to remember what he tried to convey to us all these years: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.”

Each time Congressman Lewis visited the Memorial, we repeated our greetings and goodbyes. Each time more special than the last. I don’t know when it happened, but I came to add “I love you.” And you know what? He said, “I love you, too.”

Today, I’ll say those words one last time.