Fa­ther John wanted to serve, and that’s how he lived his life

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - SHIREEN MUKADAM

SOUTH Africa held its breath. Ja­cob Zuma was go­ing to be mak­ing an “an­nounce­ment”. Would he be telling the world Nel­son Man­dela had died?

I phoned Fa­ther John Oliver – my friend, my men­tor, my source of light and a man who al­ways seemed to know what was go­ing on. “Have you heard any­thing about Man­dela?” I asked. Fa­ther John, who was fran­ti­cally try­ing to or­gan­ise a prayer ser­vice for Man­dela, hadn’t heard any­thing. We promised to keep each other posted. I called him back a short while later. When I told him that Man­dela was still alive, he sighed with re­lief. “You al­most gave me a heart at­tack,” he said. It was the last con­ver­sa­tion I would have with him. A week later, on July 4, he died in his sleep from a sus­pected heart at­tack.

I met Fa­ther John three years ago while work­ing for the Right2Know cam­paign. I went to his of­fice in Zon­nebloem to talk to him about the cam­paign’s first march to Par­lia­ment. “How can I help?” he asked. This, in essence, was Fa­ther John; he wanted to serve, and that is how he lived his life.

John Oliver, born in Swin­don, Eng­land in 1947, moved to South Africa in 1990. “The best in­tro­duc­tion to South Africa was work­ing in town­ships,” he said. Dur­ing his time here he jug­gled mul­ti­ple roles while also be­ing a hus­band to Emma and a fa­ther to Sarah and Joseph.

He had close ties with many peo­ple. When he spoke to you, he gave you his un­di­vided at­ten­tion. Ear­lier this year when I was go­ing through a tough time, Fa­ther John called me to find out how I was do­ing. We ar­ranged to meet at Nando’s. He had rushed from a meet­ing and af­ter he had spent time chat­ting to me he rushed off to his next meet­ing.

When I think of him, I think of light, in­cred­i­ble light. He em­bod­ied end­less com­pas­sion, gen­eros­ity and tol­er­ance of the “other”.

“Fear is all in our heads,” he told me. “If we can change our think­ing, then we can be hu­man to­gether. We are hu­man be­ings, we can share our hu­man­ity. Racial and re­li­gious dif­fer­ences al­ways come sec­ond.”

He was cu­ri­ous and creative in seek­ing so­lu­tions to what oth­ers saw as prob­lems. When the City threat­ened to close down St Mark’s be­cause of the risk of the north wall col­laps­ing, he saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing. “If you come up against a wall in life, turn it into a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity,” he said.

Tra­di­tion­ally, there is a phys­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion be­tween con­gre­gants and the high al­tar, re­flec­tive of the sep­a­ra­tion be­tween priest and peo­ple. A more mod­ern style, which Fa­ther John adopted, was to bring the al­tar for­ward. “I be­lieve in equal­ity,” he rea­soned. “We are all the peo­ple of God.”

While trav­el­ling in In­dia in the 1960s he be­came con­vinced of the spir­i­tual unity of hu­mankind. “We are all draw­ing on the same source of wa­ter,” he ob­served. It was in In­dia that he was able to “drink from an­other’s spir­i­tual well” and re­alised the taste of the wa­ter was the same. “It con­firmed my the­ol­ogy of the uni­ver­sal­ity of all re­li­gions,” he said. It also re­newed his pas­sion for in­ter­faith work.

He be­came distressed later in life “to see how re­li­gion is used to fuel con­flict, and how lives are sac­ri­ficed in the name of re­li­gion”. Within a week of his death, one of the holi­est Bud­dhist shrines, Bodh Gaya’s Ma­ha­bodhi tem­ple in In­dia, was bombed. The next day, women, chil- dren and men were fired upon while pray­ing in Egypt – 50 died. Closer to home, a blind busker was ar­rested and dragged along the street. Fa­ther John would have been distressed by th­ese events, for he ded­i­cated his life to peace. He be­lieved in the con­nec­tion be­tween the spir­i­tual and the real world and the im­por­tance of hold­ing the two closely to­gether.

That’s why he founded the Cape Town In­ter­faith Ini­tia­tive and co­founded the Western Cape Re­li­gious Lead­ers Fo­rum. Th­ese ini­tia­tives have given re­li­gious lead­ers a ve­hi­cle with which to en­gage the govern­ment and com­mu­ni­ties on crit­i­cal is­sues, adding strength to civil so­ci­ety. God’s world, he would ar­gue, was not di­vided into black and white, wrong and right. “We cre­ate right and wrong. It’s not like that.”

The in­ter­faith prayers by di­verse re­li­gious lead­ers at his fu­neral, and the colour­ful cloth cov­er­ing his cof­fin em­broi­dered with in­ter­faith re­li­gious sym­bols, were fit­ting. Fa­ther John would have ap­proved.

Man­dela is still alive – but the man who had been plan­ning a me­mo­rial ser­vice for the great leader is dead. Some say Fa­ther John died of a bro­ken heart. He re­tired from St Mark’s in April, af­ter 18 years’ ser­vice, and said af­ter­wards he was in mourn­ing for his peo­ple, the com­mu­nity of St Mark’s. All the many peo­ple whose lives have been il­lu­mi­nated by Fa­ther John are now mourn­ing him.

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