Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush have arrived at Ebenezer Baptist Church to pay tribute to civil rights icon John Lewis as Barack Obama plans to deliver a eulogy.
After the coffin was carried into the Atlanta church on Thursday morning, the service began with a moment of silence as more than 500 churches across the country rang bells 80 times to honour the late congressman, who died at the age of 80.
While past presidents were expected to feature in the funeral, Donald Trump has indicated that he wouldn’t be attending.
Reverend Raphael Warnock invoked the current president as he welcomed mourners to the spiritual home of Mr Lewis, saying they were summoned to honour the civil rights hero as “some in high office” are much better at division than vision.
“In a moment when there is so much political cynicism and narcissism that masquerades as patriotism, here lies a true American patriot who risked his life and limb for the hope and the promise of democracy,” Mr Warnock said.
Mr Warnock added that while they had come to say farewell to a friend, these difficult days made grieving more challenging.
“At a time we would find comfort embracing one another, love compels us to socially distance from one another,” he said.
Mr Bush had mourners in hysterics as he recounted Lewis’ first non-violent protest of refusing to eat his own “flock” of chickens, who he baptised, married and preached to.
“Every morning he would rise before the sun to attend the flock of chickens. He love those chickens,” Mr Bush said.
“He’s been called an American saint, a believer willing to give up everything. Even life itself to bear witness to the truth that drove him all his life. That we could build a world of peace and justice and harmony and love.”
Mr Clinton said that for a fellow that got his start speaking to chickens, Mr Lewis had a pretty finely organised, orchestrated and deeply deserved send-off.
“I think it’s important that all of us who love him remember that he was after all, a human being. A man like all other humans born with strengths that he made the most of when many don’t,” Mr Clinton said.
“Born with weaknesses that he worked hard to beat down when many can’t. But still a person. It made him more interesting, and it made him in my mind even greater.”
Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, held back tears and she remembered the night their friend, mentor and colleague died.
“When John Lewis served with us he wanted us to see the civil rights movement and the rest through his eyes. He told us so many stories, he taught us so much and he took us to Selma,” she said. “He wanted us to see how important it was to understand the spirit of non-violence.”
She said that while it hadn’t rained on his last night at the Capitol as thousands of people showed up to pay their respects, a double rainbow appeared over Mr Lewis’s casket.
“We waved goodbye when he started to leave us. He was telling us. He was telling us. I’m home in heaven. I’m home in heaven. We always he knew he was on the side of the angels and now he’s with them,” she said.
Reverend James Lawson said that all the stories about Mr Lewis preaching to his chickens as a young boy were a sign that something else was happening to him in those early years, where he saw the malignancy of racism in Troy, Alabama.
“That formed in him a sensibility that he had to do something about it,” Mr Lawson said. “He did not know what that was but he was convinced that he was called, indeed to do whatever he could do, get in good trouble, but stop the horror that so many folk lived through and in in this country in that part of the 20th century.”
Mr Obama is expected to deliver a eulogy shortly, but in the meantime a letter from Jimmy Carter was read out by Reverend Warnock.
“Throughout his remarkable life John has been a blessing to countless people and we are proud to be among those who’s lives he has touched,” Mr Carter said in the letter.
“We Georgians know him as our neighbour, friend and representative. His enormous contributions will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.”
Reverend James Lawson added more context to Mr Bush’s stories of Mr Lewis preaching to his chickens as a young boy, saying it was a sign that something else was happening in those early years.
“John saw the malignancy of racism in Troy Alabama,” Mr Lawson said. “That formed in him a sensibility that he had to do something about it.”
Mr Lawson continued: “He did not know what that was but he was convinced that he was called, indeed to do whatever he could do, get in good trouble, but stop the horror that so many folks lived through and in in this country in that part of the 20th century.”