Being John Lewis. And Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. And Even Myself.

By | August 19, 2016

aydin-lewis-powellToday, August 19, 2016, I had the great pleasure and extreme privilege to meet the honorable Congressional Representative John Lewis, his digital director Andrew Aydin, and illustrator Nate Powell when they came to Seattle as part of their book release tour for “March Book 3.”

Representative Lewis and Mr. Aydin collaborated on the story and Mr. Powell prepared the illustrations for this comic series that explains and expands on the Civil Rights movement of the 60s which Rep. Lewis participated in, sometimes in highly visible ways, and sometimes just in his calm, rigorous determination to do the right thing.

Rep. Lewis has lived a long life of dedication to his life’s values, which is to cause Good Trouble. He was there when the marches and demonstrations began in the 50s, and he is still on the front lines today, standing up to be arrested for the cause of justice today.

Mr. Aydin, who serves Rep. Lewis in his congressional office, has lived of life of an American who is now considered of dubious trustworthiness because his father is Muslim.

And Mr. Powell is a long-time illustrator of comics, a method that uniquely can tell a story other media cannot.

I am impressed by a few things from these gentlemen:

  1. Rep. Lewis is Mr. Lewis is a man is a believer is a righteous prophet is a loyal friend is a faithful husband is a strong father is a grieving parent is a calm voice. What he is in public is who is in private. There is no “other” John Lewis, no presentation in our public life that is an act gratefully left behind when he is off the clock. For 60 years he has been a clear-eyed, clear-voice man for truth and justice, and he has acted out where he can to highlight injustice, to call for its end, and to bring about its replacement by fairness and honesty. I cannot praise him for his efforts because his actions are not an effort. They are just who he is. Yet it is apparent that in his long life it has cost him much to be open and forthright. He has been arrested more than 40 times, even as a Congressman, for speaking up and acting out. When he was 15 he knew his purpose, and he has maintained a faithful obedience to that purpose ever since.
  2. Mr. Aydin is someone who America made possible—a man from a mixed faith family, a man raised by his mom after his dad left, a man of high intelligence and accomplishment, with multiple resources for education leading up to his masters degree, who yet is threatened by the rise of angry voices who would mark him as unfaithful and traitorous—and yet he believes in the best of America, he still works to ensure the best America. He is the “voice” of Rep. Lewis’ office, and he represents that voice of calmness, moderation, and the active pursuit of justice as well as the active opposition to hate, division, and fear.
  3. Mr. Powell knows the power of art as a means to entertain, and in entertainment, to educate and even to admonish and encourage and impel. He knows not only how to develop a story with skill, but also how to make the story come to light , bringing life to the events from 50 years ago so they make sense today.

“March” is the 3-comic-book series the three of them have created. Rep. Lewis provided the actual story, of course, because it is about his life and what he experienced. “March” tells that story of the Civil Rights Era leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and beyond), when so much of America’s promise came to fruition in the enablement of our fellow citizens. Mr. Aydin lends his hand in developing and fleshing out the story, and Mr. Powell turn the powerful words into powerful images.

But what got me, so much, was the goodness of these men. Rep. Lewis, from an early age, knew who he was and knew his worth. Through all the uncertainties he experienced, all the pain, all the abuse, all the loss, all the injustices he both saw and experienced, he maintained his belief and his faith and his clear sense of direction.

Speaking as a Christian myself, Rep. Lewis’ words reminded me of the value of kindness, integrity, love, and forgiveness to accomplish good, positive things. I am often tempted—and often give into that temptation—to despair, to be angry, to lash out, to judge, even to hate those whom I imagine to be wrong, or evil, or just unthinking opponents. This man, Rep. Lewis, has maintained his own composure and direction during events that I have no comprehension of. I cannot—cannot—imagine being in a situation where my very best efforts to bring about justice for my own family and my own people would lead to physical abuse, including being spit upon, having cigarettes burning my skin, or even seeting the police forces stand by while my opponents kick, beat, and attack me to the point of bloody injury.

In all these things I cannot imagine Rep. Lewis enjoying these things, but he did them knowing they were for the right thing. The pain and the insults and the injuries and arrests were real—but he maintained. He moved on. He brought healing and forgiveness and even love. (He told the story of the Klansman who beat him coming up to him 50 years later with his adult son to apologize and tp ask for forgiveness, and the healing time that was as a result for them all.) It was good to hear this, because—I’m being honest here—my greatest travails in my own attempts at justice have been that people don’t like me so much, and that often keeps me from speaking up or acting out. What about me and my feelings?

But I’m watching a man of great integrity, gravitas, and humility tell me these stories, and they don’t shame me at my inaction or indifference. They make me understand Rep. Lewis, that when one is committed to something they believe and the methods that must be used to attain it, that  person can do similar things. Mr. Lewis, like Dr. Martin Luther King, believes that love and non-violent action can and do bring about change—and his actions and accomplishments show that. Love is the way. Non-violence is the method. Justice is the goal. Not revenge. Not hate. Note destruction.

Mr. Aydin was an inspiration as well. A man who has also learned the power of nonviolent resistance, he is using his own body to bring awareness to the scorn and hatred heaped upon Muslims, especially Muslims in America. He is the child of a mixed-faith marriage, with a Muslim father who later left the family.

He was raised in the Christian environment, from his church to his schooling, and yet he sees that there is an ugly strain of revenge and hatred in America—so to call out this hatred, he has gone from a clean-shaven “All-American man” to a man with a beard who now vocally explains his connection with his Muslim progenitors, precisely because it is the start of conversations about race, religion, hatred, and prejudice with those whom he meets who ask “What happened to you, Andrew?” It is his non-violent action to start the discussion with people who are comfortable with Muslim-bashing because they know it only affects “them”; he points out that it also will affect him, and that causes a conversation to go to places it otherwise would not.

I appreciated that humility and kindness and even bravery to join with a class of people more hated and despised than one would think possible. I appreciated that he has done what he needed to do to speak out, and to do so in a way that would bring about rethinking and reconsideration—and perhaps even repentance among the people he interacts with. These Muslims here in America—they’re our people. They’re here because America is good, and offers the promise of security and success, of raising one’s family and improving one’s life—these people took us up on our word, and now we who are considerate and honest and open must—must—examine our own actions and words. We promised them a safe harbor. We must follow up with that because we are people of honor.

Mr. Powell, the man with the pen and paper, impressed me with his insight into storytelling that is so vivid that we cannot turn a page as our dread increases of what must come and yet what should not happen. He related how deeply it affected him to draw the story of Rep. Lewis and his physical interactions with people, even the attacks, and how he was “hurting” the man he loved and respected. That is storytelling, when the story is that alive. It reminds me of how important I think words are when telling a story. I believe that storytelling can be accomplished through many forms of media. There is dance, there is movement, there is song, there is lighting, there are colors, there is scenery, and all these things are necessary – but it is the words that drive the story that becomes the story told through song and dance and lights and scenery and color. He reminded me again of how we all must use our gifts to tell the stories in our lives as well as to bring to life the stories of others.

There were a few great illustrations of the past from this event, and Rep. Lewis is a storyteller from long back. He was raised in rural Alabama, and in turned raised chickens in a dirt-poor environment. He bred them, he fed them, and he led them. Some followed, some squawked, but all were under his care and direction. But one thing he learned; chickens not only can take direction, they can produce something useful: eggs, unlike he Congress he serves in. It was a light-hearted moment, told by a man who loves his job and  who loves the people he serves with, as well as the people in his district and his nation that he serves. I loved that side of him, in that he breathes grace and life and even humor into whatever he touches. He is the same John Lewis who raised chickens and preached to the “chicken choir” as the John Lewis who still serves in Congress at 76 with a mighty voice for justice.

He talked about making good trouble, that when he would see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, he was compelled to do something in response to make it right, fair, and just. His actions were not always great, not always noticed, but they were done. He spoke about how we also and we all, with our gifts and opportunities and our hearts, can see what needs to be fixed, and work to see that it’s fixed. We also should have our own March, each one of us, doing what’s right when the time and opportunity present themselves.  It might not always be convenient, it might not always be what we want, but it is needed.

(I had a great conversation with Mr. Powell afterwards, talking about this, how there is great risk for involvement when our actions can lead to our arrests, trial , and even imprisonment, which can then later block access to employment and schools, not to mention access to “safe” society. Mr. Powell mentioned the story of [then-] Mr. Lewis’ wedding to his wife in 1968. The newspapers, not a friend of Mr. Lewis, titled the announcement “Lillian Miles Marries Unemployed Activist,” doing what they could to ensure that Mr. Lewis’ name and accomplishments were not mentioned.)

I came away from this event humbled at the man and his great integrity and love, impelled to be more honest and more open about the things I believe in to the point of risking the disappointment and disapproval of others, and convicted to use my talents as best I can to tell my own story as well as the stories of others, in order that what is only thought right, and fair, and just becomes the reality in this world.

You can buy the series yourself at many bookstores and online retailers. Here are the links for buying them directly from Amazon.com: