The churchyard at Bruton Parish is lush and green: a cool, breathing space of utmost serenity. In this photo the absence of leaf cover is conspicuous to me. I’m actually smiling so the weather must be tolerable, which would make this one of those warm late winter Virginia mornings of the sort that summon the sap of towering oaks, fragrant cedars, and catalpas from deep within their roots. I’m guessing it was February or March of 1976.
This was also during the era of Dr. Cotesworth Pinckney Lewis, at whose service I was preparing to dutifully assist. Having sung in Jock Darling’s choir for years meant I saw Dr. Lewis countless Sundays (and practice days as well) both in the vestry and pulpit –as a private and public individual– and marked the consistency of his character. I feel I knew Dr. Lewis well, and personally.
To properly contextualize these names, allow me to relate a story by famed AP writer Frank Cormier that exemplifies the rectitude of both men. It is the story for which Dr. Lewis is perhaps best remembered; one in which he puts President Lyndon Baines Johnson on the spot one Sunday in mid-November, 1967.
Dr. Lewis, however, told the President “there is a rather general consensus that something is wrong in Vietnam.” The clergyman went on:
“We wonder if some logical straightforward explanation might be given without endangering whatever military or political advantage we hold…While pledging our loyalty we ask respectfully why?”
The minister, described by parishioners as a conservative Southern Democrat with roots deep in Alabama, said:
“We are appalled that apparently this is the only war in our history which was had three times as many civilians as military casualties. It is particularly regrettable that to most nations the struggle’s purpose appears as a form of neocolonialism.”
He also said, in apparent reference to those who want a stepped-up war, that Americans are mystified by news reports “suggesting our brave fighting units are inhibited by directives and inadequate equipment from using their capacities to terminate the conflict successfully.”
“When the rector escorted Johnson to the presidential limousine after the service, shook his hand, and murmured a few words, Johnson simply nodded.
Mrs. Johnson’s parting comment to Dr. Lewis was, “Wonderful choir.”
Yes, Mrs. First Lady: yes it was. That all of this happened where my family came to pray, where my friends and I used to trifle and connive and run around in vestment & surplice, is less of moment in my life than a single step on the footworn, steady Way of the Church. Pres. Johnson & party had been sitting in the George Washington pew, after all.
To me Dr. Lewis’ example was that aforementioned constancy. Dr. Lewis was the same decent, observant man in any setting, at all times. It made him an easy target for youthful satire, but it also proved the concept that decent living can and must occur in every moment, and that all moments are the same with respect to the opportunities for decency we take or shun.