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Salute to Congressperson Louis Stokes
by Joseph Patrick Meissner

"Where is the kneeler?"

On this brilliant sunny day, I have come to Cleveland City Hall to pay my respects to Congressperson Louis Stokes who passed away at age 90 this past week. He is at the front of the City Hall Rotunda lying in a large elegant casket made from the best of woods. On the left and right side of his casket are standing straight, tall, and rigid, two guards in their best uniforms. We, the public, are separated by a rope from the casket and the guards.

"He looks just like he is sleeping," I later will tell one of my favorite judges outside City Hall. I ask one of the nearby lady escorts about a kneeler.

"I will have to ask somebody," she solemnly smiles.

But there is none. People are simply filing down the eastern corridor of the rotunda, then along the roped off area in from of the casket-pausing for a few second-- and finally they turn away and leave by the western corridor.

As a Roman Catholic, however, I must find a kneeler where we can respectfully pray. We all should kneel more than we do. I could just kneel on the beautiful hard marble floor without a kneeler, but then because of my weak legs and bad hips, I would never be able to stand up.

So I grab one of the nearby wooden folding chairs with its "Reserved" sign on it and use that to go down on my knees. I fold my hands and bow my heard.

I pretend I am making a little speech to as well as about the Congressperson.

"There are three points I would remember about the Congressperson. "First, in my Catholic Faith, we advertise the 'Seven Corporal Works of Mercy.' These are activities that God calls upon us all to perform for our fellow human beings in need. One of these is the corporal work and command 'Give Shelter to the homeless..'"

"Stokes must have heard directly this command from the Lord. For decades he has been championing the cause of providing housing for the poor. He has used his best legislative skills in Congress to leverage all sorts of funds for Cleveland and the various low-income housing projects. Every time I drive along Cedar or Woodland Avenues or along East 30th, East 40th, and East 55th, I look at all the CMHA apartments and buildings.

Long ago, these apartments with their austere red brick fronts and white siding looked like housing suitable for a low security prison compound. But over the years, the newer buildings sport bright colors and imaginative architectural designs.

"'Who was responsible for all this constructing homes for the poor?' I ask myself.

"'This,' I answer my own question, 'was one of Congressperson Stokes' great accomplishments.'

"The second point of my simple speech is built on another Catholic ideal of the Eight Beatitudes given to us by Jesus in His inspirational Sermon on the Mount. The Fourth Beatitude declares: 'Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." Congressperson Stokes was a man of compassion. He thirsted for righteousness all his political life.

We do not need to go thru all his honors, his political office of thirty years in Congress, his many powerful committee assignments and chair positions as well as his election as the first person of Afro-American blood from Ohio. These have been well-documented in the media for us.

"'He was steadfast in his dedication to civil rights and equality,' my good Judge friend said, 'I had various dealings with him when I was a legislator from the general Euclid communities and he was always willing to listen and work things out on controversial issues.'

"Perhaps it was his ready smile. Maybe it was his quiet demeanor. Maybe just his bighearted hello's for everyone. He did hunger for the right and he knew how to satisfy that while building bridges among all the races.

"Here is my Third point of a speech never delivered. Many think that Stokes is dead. But I do not accept that. I attended the funeral of the stirring leader Malcolm X in Harlem in 1965. I attended the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, the awesome civil rights hero in 1968 in Atlanta. Malcolm X is not dead. Dr. King is not dead. Stokes is not dead. They are right here beside us in this very challenging, unjust, even heartless, world. Their words, their actions, their standards, and their spirits live on. When we breathe, we can partake of their souls and we are joined with them.

"So let us not forget them. Our children must remember their ideals. Our city should recollect and publicly celebrate them. Would it be too much to combine remembrances of Louis Stokes and his brother Carl with our annual January celebrations of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King? Perhaps there should even be a separate day for Stokes' celebrations. We should decide on this now and not let the years undermine and drain our resolve."

So I finish my little speech in the Congressperson's honor. No one will ever hear my words but Stokes will. That is enough. Then I pray for him, but he does not require that. "He really does not need our prayers," I told one of the escort ladies outside on the City Hall steps. "He is already welcomed into heaven and enjoys the highest place beside his brother Carl. We shall meet them again in the flesh.

I then pray for our City. I pray for the East side and the West side so well served by the Congressperson. I pray for neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant, Kinsman, Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway, and Glenville. These places are better for his life.

I make a sign of the cross. "I saw you on television," says a member of our Immigration Coalition. "You made a huge sign of the cross, not like those tiny ones some politicians make out of embarrassment."

Then I struggle to stand up, holding onto the dark wooden chair. Despite its wobbling, finally I am upright. I put the chair back into its front row where so many will attend later to hear moving tributes.

I then return to standing straight in front of the coffin. Feet and shoes together, I raise my right hand in a military salute while my left arm is straight along my left side.

I hold the salute for a minute to venerate this People's Warrior.

Then I snap down the salute and use my cane to walk left, down the corridor, and outside into the warm August afternoon.

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