There was an exquisite rainbow over the vlei on the morning of Father John’s memorial service on 20 July. It was a fitting tribute to a man so committed to social and environmental justice, so embracing of social, cultural and ecological diversity, truly an ambassador for our rainbow nation in the most profound sense of this concept.
Anyone who had the privilege of hearing John Oliver speak about environmental issues could not have failed to be moved. He spoke so eloquently about his love of the earth, which for him seemed so inextricably bound with his love of God; he spoke too of the spiritual, physical, and emotional distress caused to humans by the ruthless and destructive exploitation of earth’s resources; he spoke of our separation from nature as a type of apartheid, bringing all the devastation and sorrow that apartheid always brings.
At his memorial service, people paid tribute to the extraordinary work that he did in the fields of interfaith communication, healing domestic abuse, social justice, ending gun violence and many others. It is astonishing that he still found so much time and passion to put into Princess Vlei and nearby Blommersvlei Park.
But it makes sense that these two humble community conservation projects would resonate so strongly with him. John was a champion of the neglected, the abused, the downtrodden, and Princess Vlei is an embodiment of all that he stood for: a jewel of natural beauty beloved by many of the poorer communities around its banks, but overlooked and undervalued by those in power who seem to see it only as a site for shopping mall.
On Sunday 21st we did a planting for Madiba day, and planted a Camphor tree in Father John’s honour, which was blessed by Bishop Gregorowski. In dedicating the tree, Philip Bam described John as “God’s gardener”, who tended to God’s garden wherever he found it.
As we stood praying with Bishop Gregorowski, the wind blew through the grass, bringing so many images of Father John – canoeing in the waters, taking part in a baptism at the vlei, dancing in the traffic with a “hoot if you love the Princess” sign, gently calling us to order in unruly meetings, planting, digging, clearing litter, praying, bringing passion, vision and guidance to so many events.
We will miss him terribly, and our thoughts are with his family who have suffered a devastating loss. But he will always be with us. And if our vision that he shared with such passion, of a nature and heritage park at Princess Vlei comes to fruition, his spirit will always be found there.
Mayor Patricia De Lille spoke movingly at his funeral about John’s dedication to building a compassionate city. She affirmed her commitment to this vision in taking John’s legacy forward. How wonderful if she would express her commitment by giving a reprieve to one of John’s most beloved places, the Princess Vlei.
25 July 2013