July 30 (UPI) -- Former President Barack Obama paid tribute to civil rights leader and longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis at a private funeral service in Atlanta Thursday, calling him a man of "unbreakable perseverance."
"It is a great honor to be back at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the pulpit of its greatest pastor -- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- to pay my respects to perhaps his finest disciple," Obama said in his eulogy. "An American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance -- John Robert Lewis."
Obama's eulogy also took on the tone of a call to action in an America that's seen numerous mass protests demanding racial equality and an end to divisiveness.
"If we want our children to grow up in a democracy -- not just elections but a true democracy, a representative democracy, a big-hearted, tolerant, inclusive America -- we're going to have to be more like John," he said.
"Like John, we don't have to choose between protest and politics. ... We have to translate our passion into laws."
"We are born with instructions to form a more perfect union," he added. "Explicit in those words is the idea that we're imperfect. That what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last generation and carry it further than any might have thought possible."
"America was built by John Lewises," Obama continued. "He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideas. And someday when we do finish that long journey toward freedom, whether it's years from now or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries, John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America."
In his remarks, Clinton acknowledged Lewis' determination in pursuing King's ideal of creating a "beloved community" of equal justice.
"John always kept walking to reach the 'beloved community,'" Clinton said. "He got into a lot of 'good trouble' along the way but let's not forget -- he also developed along the way an uncanny ability to heal troubled waters.
"When he could have been angry, and cancel his adversaries, he tried to get converts instead. He thought his open hand was better than the clenched fist."
Bush praised Lewis' devotion to non-violence based in religious conviction.
"He always thought of others," he said. "He always believed in preaching the gospel, in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope."
The only other living former president and Georgia native, Jimmy Carter, did not attend Thursday's service. Carter, 95, and former first lady Rosalyn Carter don't travel much anymore, a representative said.
Following the service, Lewis will be buried next to his wife, Lillian, at South-View Cemetery in Atlanta.
The invitation-only funeral is being streamed online.
Earlier, Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, praised Lewis as a man who "risked his life and limb" for the promise of democracy and remembered him as "a true American patriot" during a time of deep political division and cynicism.
"We're summoned here because in a moment when there are some in high office who are much better at division than vision -- who cannot lead us so they speak to divide us -- 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," Warnock said
Lewis, who represented Georgia's 5th District in the U.S. House for more than 33 years, died of cancer on July 17 at age 80. Earlier this week, he laid in state at the U.S. Capitol and Georgia statehouse.
Lewis had written an essay to all Americans shortly before his death that he wanted to be publicized on the day of his funeral.
"While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me," he wrote. "You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.
"Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
"When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."