Remembering Cape Town's Heart of Interfaith Father John Oliver

With sadness the Parliament of the World’s Religions shares a heartfelt reflection on the sudden July 4 passing of South Africa’s Father John Oliver, who founded the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative in South Africa. The organization built out of the 1999 Parliament remains the heart of interfaith in the city so many cherish for its legacy of interfaith triumph.

Chair Gordon Oliver says the loss of the city’s “interfaith guru” leaves a gaping hole in the entire community. Remembered for a smile CPWR Chair Emeritus Jim Kenney will never forget, Father John Oliver’s relationship to the Parliament inspired a complete trust so persuasive, it would be his influence in securing District Six the site of a Parliament staged to celebrate Interfaith’s greatest success at the turn of a millennium.

Kenney, “Fr. John was one of my closest colleagues and very best friends during the three years that my wife, Cetta, and I spent in Cape Town, Jo-burg, and Durban, planning the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions. John was an “early adopter” of the philosophy/theology of pluralism. He was brilliant, compassionate, and so very well versed in the religions of the world, and the religions of southern Africa. He was a passionate advocate, often against the will of his own Archdiocese, of African Traditional Religion.”

This marriage to the Parliament thrived over a decade and a half. Only weeks before his passing, Father Oliver delighted CPWR’s Ambassador Advisory Committee through an applying to become an Ambassador of the Parliament, renewing a long-term commitment to keep CPWR alive in South Africa.

Under a year ago, the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative hosted CPWR Trustee Emeritus Yogacharya Ellen Grace O’Brian. Her words describe a man whose name will become synonymous with Interfaith in the movement.

Fr. John Oliver was a passionate man—on fire for truth, justice and real peace. He dedicated his life to those efforts as an Anglican priest and tireless supporter of interreligious harmony. Last fall, as a representative of CPWR, I visited the offices of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and had the privilege of spending time with him, his colleagues in interfaith work, and his beloved family. I came away transformed by his presence. He was tireless in his work for peace and relentless in his deep soul-search for truth, which included the willingness to explore beyond the boundaries of his own tradition. He was profoundly interested in the inter-spiritual dimension of interfaith work. He yearned to go beyond interfaith dialog to discover an even deeper place to connect to others. He loved South Africa and the community he served at St. Mark’s in District Six. When I asked him if he would come to the US, he replied, “Why would I do that?” The heart and soul of South Africa spoke deeply to him. His life and legacy speaks deeply to us about many important things, not the least of which is what becomes possible when a person catches an interfaith vision for peace and has the courage to pursue it.

Further accomplishments of the recently retired champion include his work as the primary organizer to bring Cape Town into the worldwide network of Compassionate Cities through the Charter for Compassion.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions shares our love and support to the city of Cape Town and the wider Western Cape, the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, with prayers for the countless friends mourning Father Oliver. Official memorial action in honor of his achievements and gifts to the Parliament will be undertaken by our full board and emeriti in the coming months.

Featured image courtesy of Save Princess Vlei Forum

Above right: Remembering Cape Town’s Interfaith Guru, Father John Oliver. Founder of Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, Primary organizer of Cape Town Parliament of the World’s Religions 1999, Facilitator of Cape Town’s entree to the Compassionate Cities Network, and community man of honor. Died July 4 2013 at 65 years old.

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