By Misty Raley Gassaway
Celebrating my friend, I had the opportunity to meet Congressman John Lewis after graduating college and then again later and I will forever remember the encounters. He took the time to treat people with dignity and respect. Mr. Lewis fought for what he believed in, fascinated me with his stories, and he was a feisty character, too. I’ll always appreciate him and what he did for our history. I look forward to seeing what happens next because of his legacy that he left behind. Here’s my bizarre, humbling and embarrassing encounter of meeting him.
It was in 2013 and I was headed to a panel to hear a talk from some of the original Freedom Riders. It was an exciting day for me, but all of my friends who intended to come with me canceled out due to rain. I understood. That particular city isn’t known for safe driving in the rain. I raced inside the museum just before they closed the doors, but I hadn’t avoided the torrential downpour.
The attendant at the door had the unfortunate pleasure of enforcing a particular rule that applied to me. She respectfully and quietly let me know I was far past wet, and would be unable to go into the auditorium until I had dried off. I was a bit embarrassed, but also didn’t want to damage the older wood in the room. I was also familiar with the reasoning behind the policy and it was clearly displayed. I indicated that I understood and began to head towards the bathroom with the intention to return dry after the panel’s second break.
As the doors closed, I noticed an older man with a tarp following after me. I recalled that he had gone in the door right before me. Turns out he was listening to our very quiet conversation and stopped me as I walked away. I had just taken off my soaked glasses to clean them. I could see from a distance that the man ushered someone over and gave them instructions while pointing at me. Then he stopped me to ask my name and where I’m from. I thought it was weird, but I assumed it was related to the event’s tickets. I said “Sir, my name is Misty Raley and I’m from San Antonio, Texas.” As he paused he said, “were you born there?” I said, “No, I was born in Atlanta, Georgia.”
He nodded, and then the usher returned. The stranger looked at me and said, “Ms. Raley, follow me I have a tarp waiting for you.” Confused, I followed, despite my glasses never getting any dryer. I put my smeary glasses on and followed the man, but I started to wonder what he meant by a tarp.
I didn’t say anything as I quickly followed this man, my heart was pounding and I felt really uncomfortable, but I kept walking. We walked down a long hallway and through several sets of doors. A few half dozen people walked past and even I could tell I was getting weird looks. The stranger continued to usher me forward.
Once I made my way around the corner and noticed we had stopped. Another stranger handed me a towel to wrap around my body. I looked up and saw bright lights and the room was really cold for a soggy wet girl. like me. As I looked closer, I noticed we were off the main stage and the podium was feet from where we were standing. The crowd cheered as the introducer said, “Please welcome, Mr. John Lewis. What an honor!” The newly identified stranger walked up said, “Thank you for having me today. Please welcome, my friend and special guest: Misty Raley. A Georgian turned San Antonio, Texan.”
It was one of the weirdest moments of my life. I went from being ushered to the bathroom to being on the main stage with John FREAKING awesome Lewis. And he was right, sure enough, Mr. Lewis had a tarp for me set up in the front row. I pity the person who had to figure that situation out but I was grateful for the solution. I sat and soaked up four hours of fascinating first accounts of the Freedom Riders. After the talk, Mr. Lewis invited me to share in some snacks and “have a chat.”
We talked for twenty-five minutes that evening and it was so special. He introduced me to the rest of the Freedom Riders there and encouraged me to keep learning. I didn’t even notice my chapped and soggy thighs, I was so excited to be there.
When I asked him why he helped me he said,” You looked like a soggy Georgia Peach to me… but also I liked how you responded to the situation. But mainly, I just wanted to see these people squirm as I asked them to get me a tarp. You should have seen their faces.” He had a great laugh. We then talked about dogs, our faith, the best way to make grits, different foods, my time in China, his travels, and some of the most random of subjects. I finished eating and said I better go because I noticed it was getting late. He laughed again and said, “Well, I don’t want to take your time.” Mr. Lewis shook my hand and told me the next time we were in the same town that I should let him know the “Georgia Peach is here” and he’d come and greet me from wherever he was that day. I didn’t assume he was serious but I appreciated the kindness regardless.
Several years later, I saw him one other time. I didn’t let him know that I would be attending a talk he was hosting, but I was eager to hear him speak as a solo act. I was also still recovering from the last fluke of a meeting with him, and I assumed I could not recover the embarrassment when I contacted his people to let them know “Georgia Peach” was in town. I assumed they would consider me insane and discredit my communication.
I remember that day because I was excited, and I made sure to come early and prepare for any type of weather. As he spoke of history, he was respectful of all sides but clear on helping us understand how it was back in the not-so-long-ago day. Mr. Lewis had a knack for capturing an audience’s attention. Midway through, I started coughing. I quietly leaned down to drink from the small waters they had provided. Soon after, he recognized me in the audience.
I knew my second most embarrassing encounter was about to begin. He stopped in the middle of his talk, asked Mr. Lewis asked the staff to turn down the lights. He said, ” Well… Misty, my friend. You can’t hide a Georgia Peach. You’re older, but that’s you. You look different when your clothes are dry! Good on you, and good to see you again.” Then he proceeded to tell the entire audience of our experience. “Listen, this young lady was so wet, but thirsty for knowledge,” he joked. And after a few more jokes, he continued on.
After the talk, he winked at me. Stopping the press interviews, he reached out his hand to me and asked for a hug. He said, ” Peace be with you, friend and sister in the Lord. So good to see you again. I needed that smile of yours.” And although it was short, that encounter meant the world to me.
As I heard the news of Congressman John Lewis’ passion, I thought, “Peace be with you, my friend and brother.” You were a strong Christian, a civil rights fighter leading with humility, active listener and a peacemaker too.
Thank you for taking time to influence a clueless, young white “Georgia Peach.”
After years of overcoming, the only thing that gets the best of Misty nowadays is Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream. Misty Raley Gassaway, from San Antonio, Texas, is newly married to Jason Gassaway. Together they aim to open their home and their resources to give back to others. Misty has had a variety of jobs over the years, but everyone involved working with children and their families. She has every intention to begin Christian seminary in 2019. Most weekends, you can find Misty hiking, traveling, or going to music festivals. Her loves include spicy food, emojis, hanging with her community, and going with her mom to buy unnecessary items at Costco. “