By Rev. Dr. Robert A.F. Turner
In ceremonies of the Jewish tradition, a cup, a chair, and an opened door are all made available in remembrance of the Prophet Elijah. A leader of prophets, whose tenure intersected the reign of an oppressive king, Elijah spoke truth to power and ushered in the wrath of God upon those who would unjustly oppress the people of God. Could it be that in our current national political climate that God would send into the realm of our nation’s political leadership and governmental office one whose heart and conscience are rooted in God and whose character is unbending and never bowing in representation of the least, the lost, the left out, and the left behind? Perhaps it was providential that he was named Elijah because it was the spirit of the prophet that infected and affected Congressman Elijah Eugene Cummings. It was that spirit that propelled him to in fact be a prophet amongst politicians.
The trajectory of Rep. Cummings’ life has been that of distinguishing himself. Perhaps it would be more so proper to say that God distinguished him as one who would overcome insurmountable odds to reach the level of greatness; however, greatness for Rep. Cummings was not measured by his personal accomplishments, but rather by the service which he rendered to his constituents, his neighbors, his church members, all of who were his friends. As a young student, teachers labeled an overly inquisitive Elijah Cummings as being special needs. Bored by the methodology of traditional pedagogy, Cummings would not quietly tow the student’s line, instead choosing to be both edified as well as intellectually enlightened, he kept questioning, never accepting on face value, but wanting to learn, wanting to know. Some teacher thought that he just couldn’t comprehend the lesson; but what they didn’t know was that Elijah wouldn’t accept “their”
instruction. You had to make it plain. Finally, a teacher noticed that Cummings was not special needs, but gifted and educationally curious. He was distinguished.
To the residents of Howard County, Cummings was a fierce fighter who made sure that opportunities would not escape the grip of its residents. There are countless stories from his working to improve race relations to his leadership and support during the terrible flooding of Ellicott City. He was not a rope line specialist that only showed up during election season, but a stand by your side public servant who remained watchful until his constituency was heard and a resolution was established.
He was most comfortable being amongst the people and living amongst the people. As a shepherd, he smelled like the sheep of his fold. In this way, he didn’t need to be briefed on the issues because he was right there in the heart of the situation: protecting, supporting, and at times critiquing. There is perhaps no greater example of this reality than during the 2015 protests in support of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who was severely injured while in police custody. Gray’s injuries would prove fatal as he succumbed the following day. During the protest and rioting, who was in the center calling for calm, protecting constituents, and determined not to let the pain of the people’s protest be misconstrued as lawlessness? Fearlessly, he stood amid the chaos and offered an interpretation of the people’s hurt by giving voice to the exasperation of their victimization. Rare amongst politician, Elijah Cummings distinguished himself.
When a president and his administration would attempt to intimidate seekers of justice who were constitutionally sworn to uphold their office by protecting the sacred trust, Elijah Cummings stood honorably on the truth and faced the bully pulpit of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the bold conviction of Druid Heights. When that same president sought to denigrate Baltimore, Cummings – emotionally hurt by the characterization — stood tall, choosing to never
respond directly by climbing into the mud, where all too often our current president is most comfortable residing, but Rep. Cummings remained undeterred in his work to seek the truth that the American people elected Congress to ascertain.
The son of sharecropping Pentecostal preachers, Rep. Cummings was a man of deep faith, which was rooted in serving God by serving his neighbor. Never one to bask in titles, but if there were a title that he wore proudly, it was not Attorney, or Party Leader, or Delegate, or Congressman, or even Mr. Chairman, because he distinguished himself to always be different than the typical caricature of power. Neither title was as pleasing and ironically more befitting for Elijah Eugene Cummings than that of “NEIGHBOR”. What a blessing it was for you to live in Rep. Cummings’ expansive neighborhood, because if you were accepted as his neighbor, then he extended you the hospitality of being his friend. Whether you were a constituent that needed a letter of support, or a job-seeking resident who bumped into him on an aisle in the market, or even if you were a Republican Congressman who needed a legislative favor or a prayer; Elijah, the man, the brother, the friend would ultimately shed all titles, which humanity bestowed upon him for the Christo-centric identity of being a friend who sought first and foremost to serve you. When I remember Congressman Elijah Eugene Cummings, I will certainly remember him for being strong and vibrant, cerebral and prophetic, bold and boisterous; however, one scripture encapsulates him best. In the Gospel of Saint John, the 15th chapter and the 13th verse, we read: “Greater Love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” So, with a mixture of emotions that couples our tears with blessed eschatological hope of seeing our Congressman, brother, neighbor, and friend once more, we stand on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay to say farewell to the distinguished gentleman of our collective heart.