John Lewis’s Loving Light

Moran Center Executive Director Patrick Keenan-Devlin recently wrote this piece reflecting on the late Congressman John Lewis’ visit to Chicago/Evanston, Illinois in 2018 – sharing what he witnessed to inspire others to see children, young people, “through [John Lewis’s] loving light.”

Congressman John Lewis walked up the stairs of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, (i.e., Cook County’s jail for children) and was greeted by six teenagers wearing gold jackets over their JTDC-issued, navy blue sweatshirts. “These are the Ambassadors, young people who’ve attained the highest number of points possible while in the Detention Center. They’ll be giving you the official tour today, Congressman,” Deputy Superintendent Diane McGhee said. The teenagers then led us in and out of classrooms and down, winding corridors, speaking with authority and purpose. Ms. McGhee and I trailed behind. She then leaned in, pointing out the one young woman Ambassador. “She’ll be leaving us soon, and I’m just heartbroken. She’s been here for four years… She pleaded guilty to murder earlier this year, and will likely be sentenced to another two years next month…” 

At that moment, the young woman stepped into the “Barber Shop” with Congressman Lewis, proudly explaining how she recently graduated from the Center’s hairstylist program with high honors. Congressman Lewis then proudly and tenderly assured his young guides, “No one has forgotten you. There is reason to hope, and you guys give me hope.” To our community, our system, these youth were monsters who needed to be silenced and cast aside; but to John Lewis, they were the future, and he heard them, and he loved them.  

At the Illinois Youth Center-Chicago (i.e., a state prison for children), we sat in plastic folding chairs in what appeared like a typical school gymnasium and listened to youth in the Storycatchers Theatre Program perform, “Imagine More,” a collection of original stories and songs on the theme of heroes and mentors. Following the performance, John Lewis dragged his chair up to the front of the gymnasium and offered to answer questions. A young man in the back row timidly raised his hand.

Congressman Lewis called on him, and the young man shot up from his seat like a rocket. I don’t remember the question that the young man posed or the response offered by the Congressman, but what’s seared in my memory is the image of this young man standing perfectly straight throughout Congressman Lewis’s lengthy answer to his question. The Congressman asked “You’re still standing?! Do you have another question?” “No,” the young man said solemnly. “I just wanted to thank you for answering me.” 

The magnitude of this moment was unmistakable. In witnessing the weight of this young man’s physical gesture and his plain, yet heartfelt expression of gratitude, all I could think was “How many adults had failed to listen to this young man?” And yet, there was John Lewis, Civil Rights icon and U.S. Congressman, listening. Listening to the silenced. 

For 24 hours in March last year, I had the profound privilege of accompanying Congressman John Lewis and his co-author of their book series, March, Andrew Aydin, on tours of the JTDC and IYC-Chicago. It feels greedy, now  – as our nation mourns his unfathomable loss and celebrates his extraordinary life – not to share what I witnessed. If we are to be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable, the least of us, then John Lewis was the most of us, by any measure.

He radically heard and saw and loved those children, those children we’ve judged beyond redemption, cast aside, and shunned. He saw hope, humanity, possibility. And his vision reflected back to those young people, who saw themselves through his eyes. And they became those possibilities right then and there. All I could think, all I can think, is what if we all saw all our children in that light, through his eyes. What if we saw and heard and loved them as they deserved? What if the system was designed to rise to support, educate, and defend them instead of for the sole purpose of crushing them.

John Lewis loved, inspired, and heard the kids detained at the JTDC and IYC-Chicago. Not transformational, yet transformational. Not revolutionary, yet revolutionary. Not radical, yet radical. 

As our nation mourns and honors Congressman Lewis, Evanston, our community, must face our own mourning and reckoning. We will lay to rest three young men, all victims of gun violence. With their deaths, our community tragically loses not only these young men but those who caused this harm and pain, their assailants. All those who love these young people are suffering. The ripple effects are ongoing. The grief, ceaseless. What would John Lewis do, see, hear or say? How would he look at our children? We say we want to honor his legacy, his vision. What if we saw all our children through his loving light.  

Written by Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Executive Director, James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy