LOUISVILLE, Ky. >> Andre Watkins shadowboxed Sunday morning outside King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville’s west end, not far from the little pink house where Muhammad Ali grew up.
All across Ali’s hometown, the faithful headed to Sunday church services to mourn the loss of the Louisville Lip, the city’s most celebrated son. The city will also be the spot for Ali’s funeral on Friday, an event that will be open to all and streamed across the world.
“I thought he couldn’t die he was so good,” Watkins said.
Ali’s father, Cassius Clay Sr., a painter, was a fixture at King Solomon before his death decades ago. He painted a mural of Jesus’ baptism that hangs still behind the pulpit. Jesus and John the Baptist stand waist deep in a lake, and a white dove hovers overhead.
Ali’s brother, Rahaman Ali, arrived just before the 11:30 service to join the mourners.
The Rev. Wanda McIntyre, who presided over the early service Sunday, said what she remembered most about Ali was that famous, dazzling smile. He came with his father to worship occasionally, even after he converted to the Islamic faith, she said. It reminded her that he believed above all in living life with tolerance and an open heart.
“Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have different names, but they all contain water,” he once said. “So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different forms and times. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family.”
On Saturday, Russ Greenleaf had planned to go to his synagogue in Louisville. But the 59-year-old chose instead to attend a memorial service to Ali.
“I thought God wants me to be here,” he said. “This is the greater worship, really, to pay tribute to this great man.”
He stood in his Jewish prayer shawl and yarmulke to honor a Muslim who devoted his life to fairness for all colors and creeds.
At King Solomon, the Rev. Charles Elliott Jr. said he knew Ali for decades. He recalled once in the 1960s when he was trying to raise money to keep a program running to feed the city’s hungry, and Ali cut him a check.
The solace he found Sunday morning, he said, was the Ali’s suffering was finally over. He noted that Ali’s daughter said The Greatest’s heart kept beating a half-hour after the rest of his organs failed.
“He always did something nobody ever did,” Elliott said.