Muhammad Ali’s memorial service was just as the boxing champ had requested — an imam, a Catholic priest, a Protestant preacher, Buddhist monks, rabbis and a Native American chief lined the stage and spoke on spirituality at the mega-event in Louisville.
Rabbi Joe Rapport of Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom in Louisville gave a moving account of the boxing great’s encounter with a Christian man who needed a ride.
“Muhammad Ali was the heart of this city — the living, breathing embodiment of the greatest that we can be. He was our heart. That heart beats here still,” Rapport said, continuing to tell “a story you already know”:
“It’s one of those stories about Ali being gracious to a stranger that so many of us have told so many times and in so many ways that we sometimes forget the lessons that these stories were intended to teach us. It’s a story Hana [Ali] tells about her father towards the end of her book, The Soul of a Butterfly.
Hana is driving her father to a bookstore on one Sunday to pick up some Bibles and Qurans for a project that he’s working on. They pass an elderly man standing by the road with a Bible in one hand and his thumb in the air with another. They offer him a ride.
And he thanks them, saying that he’s on his way home from church, he only needs to go a few miles down the street… Hana asked where he lives. He doesn’t want to trouble them or go out of their way. He has no idea who is sitting in the front seat of this car.
Until Muhammad Ali turns around and says, ‘It’s no trouble at all. We’re just on our way to a bookstore to buy some Bibles and Qurans.’
Once the man gets over meeting the greatest of all time, he insists that he has three Bibles in his house and he’d be pleased to give them to Ali in appreciation for the ride. Ali thanks him but says he wants to pay for the Bibles. The man says, no, the Bibles were meant as a gift. Ali asked him what he does for a living and it turns out that the man had a stroke and he’s been forced into retirement. Ali then tries to hand him a big pile of money for the Bibles.
But the man refuses and this is where things get interesting. Ali says, ‘Take the money, man, I’m trying to get into heaven.’ And the man replies, ‘So am I.’
Ali is not taking ‘no’ for an answer. He says, ‘If you don’t take the money, I might not get in.’ And the man replies, ‘If I do take your money, I might not get in.’
They arrive at his home and the man invites him in to meet his wife of 30 years. He gives Ali the Bibles. Ali slips the money under a napkin on the kitchen table. They are about to leave and Hana gives the man her phone number and tells him to call her if he ever needs a ride home from church again.
Sitting in the car, Ali turns to his daughter and asks, ‘Would you really go out of your way and pick him up, drive him all the way home?’ And she says yes. And with tears in his eyes, he says, ‘That’s me in you.’
He says, ‘You’re on the road to heaven.'”
The rabbi added that “therein lies Ali’s greatness: in his ability to see something greater and his ability to inspire others to see such greatness reside within themselves.”
“There will never be another greatest like Muhammad Ali. But we together can now embody a measure of his kindness and his compassion,” Rapport said. “We can say each of us in our hearts, there’s a little bit of Ali in me.”
Guests at the service included former President Bill Clinton, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, Billy Crystal, Don King, Pat Riley, and David Beckham.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended but reportedly left miffed. As Rabbi Michael Lerner was speaking during the ceremony, he said, “Tell the leaders of Turkey to stop killing the Kurds.”