Review: We’re Better Than This, by Elijah Cummings (with Jim Dale)

“Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said, ‘His authority came not from the office he held, nor from the timbre of his voice.  It came from the moral force of his life.”  (page 282)

[1] This posthumously published autobiography invites its reader to experience the moral force of Elijah Cummings’ life and be inspired by his example.  Knowing that his time on earth was nearing its end, the congressman and Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform worked on this book.  He was determined to leave a legacy that shared his deepest convictions, strongest motivations, and passionate commitment to loving his God and his neighbors in his vocation as an attorney and legislator.  He hoped he could inspire his future readers to accept the torch he was passing to them as he finished his stretch of the race God calls upon each of us to run.

[2] The lessons he wants us to learn and to embody aren’t new: every human life is a precious gift from God; we’re put here on earth to care for one another; life is short so don’t fritter it away; practice compassion and kindness in your dealings with others – including your adversaries; fight the good fight at all times and trust that the good will ultimately prevail, no matter how great the obstacles in its path.

[3] The strength of his book is not in the novelty of what he tells us, but in his ability to illustrate these lessons with stories that touch, enlighten, and inspire us to follow the path he is encouraging us to take.  He does not give us abstract lectures about the truth he wishes us to see.  Instead, he tells tales that draw us into the experiences that shaped his life so that they might shape ours as well.

[4] He teaches us about the fundamental cruelty and injustice of racism by recounting a story his father told him about the grandfather that young Elijah had never known.  Grandpa Cummings was a preacher.  One day, in front of his congregation, he fainted and did not immediately regain consciousness.  His parishioners carried him home and sent for a doctor.  Two doctors responded to the calls they received.  Elijah’s father, sitting on the porch outside the sickroom, overheard their discussion about what should be done:

“The young white doctor said to the older one, ‘Doc, we have to get this man out of here,’ no doubt to a hospital or clinic, someplace that had better facilities and treatment.  He said, ‘If we don’t get him out of here, he’s going to die.’

“The older doctor said, ‘Don’t worry about him.  He’s only a nigger.’

“My father, age eight…heard it all, even though they were whispering.  ‘He’s only a nigger.’  He’s not a person.  He’s something less, someone who can be allowed to die.  Without care, without treatment, he could die…Because he was only a nigger.  And that night he did die.” (pages 23-24)

[5] A few pages later, Elijah Cummings describes how hard his parents worked to support their family.  His father worked the swing shift at a chemical company – jobs that were backbreaking, filthy, demeaning labor.  Every day when he came home from work, he would sit for a solid hour alone in his car, summer and winter, before coming into their home.  Years later, his father finally explained this ritual to his adult son:

“We talked about what it was like at that job in the chemical plant, and he described the way he was treated, the disregard, degradation, and insult. 

“I was called everything but a child of God,’ he said to me.

“That’s why he sat in his car.  That’s why he let the poison drain before facing his family.  To this day, I try not to let an insult or affront prevent me from dealing with adversaries.  I sit in my car, figuratively not literally, so many times a day or a week or a year, and that enables me to pursue sometimes seemingly impossible tasks.”  (page 29)

Over and over again, Elijah Cummings refrains from complaining about what happened, explaining why he is justified in nursing his grievances, lamenting about the disadvantages minorities face daily and persistently.  He simply tells us his stories, talks about what he learned from his experiences, unpacks the way they shaped the man he became – and invites us to enter into the story, to identify with his place in it, and to discover what it can teach us about our own life stories and the part we have played in the lives of others.

[6] This was, for me, the treasure to be found in this autobiography.  The stories and the lessons learned — and the repeating refrain that we can be and do better than this in our personal lives and in our life together as a nation — will no doubt appear in devotions that I am asked to lead for church gatherings as well as illustrations in sermons that I preach.

[7] As I have aged and begun to experience health issues and as I serve a congregation of people coping with a global pandemic’s impact upon their lives, I especially appreciate Elijah Cummings’ struggles with his own mortality.  As a young man, he was diagnosed with a rare and fatal cancer.  He was given six months to live.  Decades later, often plagued by recurrences of his disease and the appearance of other challenges to his physical health, he writes about his conviction that these problems have been a call from God, reminding him that he doesn’t have time to waste, spurring him to greater effort to do all that he is able to do before the final curtain falls upon the story of his life.  He speaks again of how his personal pain fuels his passion to alleviate the sufferings of others.

[8] The final chapter was written by his widow.  It recounts the tale of his failing health and their struggle not to be defeated by his illnesses and afflictions.  Even as he knew the end of his life was fast approaching, Elijah Cummings continued to do the work he felt called by God to do.  From his hospital bed, he was laying the groundwork for President Trump’s first impeachment, signing subpoenas, and editing passages from drafts of his autobiography.

His wife remembers that

“Elijah said to Vernon, ‘I’m tired.  I’m just too tired.  I have to get out of here.  I’m too tired.’

“Vernon asked to talk to me and he asked, ‘Does he mean that he’s tired and wants to get out of there, out of the hospital, to go home and rest?  Or does he mean something else?’

“Something else,’ I said.”  (pages 280-281)

A day or two later, the doctors said nothing more could be done to treat his cancer.

“Elijah asked to be moved to hospice care the same day…we moved him into the facility at nine that evening.  There was no prediction as to how long he might be there, how long he had.  Less than six hours later, he was gone.”  (page 281)

The remainder of the book lists honors he received after his death and remarks made by several speakers at his funeral.

[9] All in all, this was a deeply satisfying as well as inspiring book to read.  However, I should add that large segments of the book concern the last year of Elijah Cummings’ congressional work.  Most of that is about gathering evidence and investigating the actions of President Donald Trump in preparation for his first impeachment.  While neither Mr. Cummings nor his wife could know the outcome of these efforts as the book went to print, I happened to be reading this book in the aftermath of the November 2020 election and the deep divisions surfacing in our country that eventually found expression in a riotous invasion of the Capitol as Congress attempted to affirm the election of Joe Biden.  I did not appreciate so much ink spent on telling me things which were very old news to me.  Later generations may benefit from the recital of all the material collected by the Committee for Oversight and Reform under the leadership of Elijah Cummings.  I found these sections tedious to read and believe most current readers could skip over them without missing the many benefits to be found in the telling of this honorable man’s life story.

Janice Mynchenberg

Ordained in 1988, the Rev. Dr. Janice Mynchenberg has served the majority of her years of ministry as a trained interim specialist.  She has worked with ELCA and UCC congregations in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Alabama, and Washington D. C.  as well as serving as an ecumenical chaplain in a retirement community for three years.  She is currently serving as the pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Oveido, Florida.