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