The country’s Interfaith community lost a founding member in the beloved Father John Oliver, who passed away unexpectedly last week. Having seen him the previous weekend and responding to his urgent request that we help him save Princess Vlei outside Cape Town from threatening development, we were together building a story about this, his last passionate interest over the past two years. This was where he paddled every morning for his daily meditation.
Kate Davies from the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI) published this letter to Father John today, which pays a fitting tribute to an irreplaceable friend of the earth and compassionate inter-religious bridge builder:
Your friends and colleagues in SAFCEI have been shocked by your sudden and unexpected passing. We mourn with your family, Emma, Sarah and Joseph but we also celebrate and give thanks to God for your well-lived life.
In honouring you, many will tell stories of your dedicated and caring ministry to the community of St Mark’s, District Six. You were an experienced and valued member of the Anglican clergy in the Western Cape. Others will recall your tireless work for the Western Cape Religious Leaders’ Forum and the Cape Town Inter-faith movement. Through your respect and appreciation of others you showed how people of different faiths can and should work together.
Calling for a just, compassionate world
You engaged with civil society, government and religious leadership, calling for a more just and compassionate world for communities rent asunder and demoralized by historic divisions and economic and social inequity. As a social activist, you spoke out and marched courageously against wrongs but you only did so after asking questions and listening, and after thinking and praying.
In respecting and honouring human diversity, you crossed boundaries and in so doing, shared in the joys and sorrows of so many.
In recent years the scope of your struggle for justice widened. You called for the Cape Town city planners to declare Princess Vlei sacrosanct from desecration by ‘developers’ who are hoping to build another shopping mall. You understood the wisdom of protecting and restoring this small and threatened wetland of natural, historic and cultural significance.
You recognised the need for urban people to have access to greenbelts and water systems for spiritual and recreational renewal. You spoke on behalf of communities who have a daily view of Table Mountain yet such limited access to the city’s iconic national park.
We heard how you were surprised by your own spiritual reconnection with nature. You have been doggedly restoring God’s fynbos garden out of the wasteland adjacent to your home at the ‘end of the road’ at Zeekoevlei. You told us that in doing this hard physical work, your consciousness had begun to shift. You were exploring and experiencing what mystics have often spoken of as spiritual unity with one another and with creation. You were awakening to that conscious connection between yourself, ourselves and creation.
You reflected that much contemporary language of God is about separation – with ‘Him’ out there. At the root of our modern problems is our separation from the community of life. You recognised the need to cultivate an environmental and spiritual awareness, consciously exploring our deep connections with creation. You believed the world was beginning to wake up to a shift in consciousness in which we have to prepare our inner selves, just as we have to prepare our gardens.
The SAFCEI Earthkeeping community deeply appreciates the good work you have been doing in God’s garden, honouring our diversity, restoring our dignity and helping to heal the divisions between ourselves and the world that sustains us. Thank you Father John for the living lessons you have taught. We have been nourished by the fruits of your labours.