Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What makes a powerful Christian witness?

A fraternity brother (University of Virginia) of my husband's, John T. Fisher, has just died in Memphis. Those of who have spent our lives at some distance from Memphis knew that he had been a noteworthy citizen, but we had no idea of the depth and breadth of his example until we read his obituary.

Here is an excerpt:

Under a leaden sky in Crump Stadium the Sunday after Dr. Martin Luther King's Jr.'s assassination, a young, white car dealer stood with civil rights leaders of both races.
"This is a time to stand up and be counted," he said.
John T. Fisher, who died Friday, has long been counted in the history of this community, not only by virtue of his quote in the Memphis Press-Scimitar that historic April day, but also through his devotion to church, family and, for more than a half-century, to Memphis.
After a yearlong battle with lymphoma, Mr. Fisher died at his home, surrounded by family and friends. He was 77.
As one of the few white businessmen to side with black civil rights leaders during the sanitation worker's strike, Mr. Fisher was perhaps best known for his organizing role of a large rally following King's death, called "Memphis Cares." More than 6,000 people flooded the stadium, and Methodist Rev. Jim Lawson, who also spoke to the crowd during the event, said the racial tension in Memphis began that day to slowly calm.
Lawson, who will deliver the sermon at the funeral service, remembered Mr. Fisher as a brave man. "He was a genuine person of genuine faith, which meant also compassion and love, which also meant a sense of justice," he said. "You do not have very much character if you do not have courage to stand in the midst of conflict, and character also required a nobility of vision. ... John T. had all of those qualities, in my judgment."
Mr. Fisher's daughter, Kelly, the oldest of his three children, recalled how her father's willingness to serve black customers at his family's car dealership and vocalize his seemingly radical thoughts on racial equality earned him isolation from former friends, such as the mayor of the time, Henry Loeb. "They grew up next door to each other and had shared background," she said. "Dad thought maybe he would listen. But that didn't work."
Mr. Fisher's convictions traveled with him throughout his life. In the '70s, he decided his family needed to see life beyond Memphis, and with the help of Lawson relocated to Geneva, Switzerland, for a year as part of the World Council of Churches. There, he took a stand against apartheid in South Africa with leaders worldwide.
Yet his time in Geneva wasn't his only break from Memphis. Mr. Fisher attended boarding school in Virginia and was further educated there, at the University of Virginia. He joined the Marines after college and was stationed from 1956-1958 in Okinawa, Japan.
While overseas, he spotted a picture of the "Maid of Cotton" in the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, and the image stuck. When he returned home an eligible bachelor, 6-foot-2 with curly black hair, clear blue eyes and an easy smile, he asked the pageant queen, Jean Carter of Atlanta, on a date. It was then that Mr. Fisher told Lewis Donelson, a man who had become a father figure after his own passed when he was 14, that he found the girl he would marry. And a year later, he did.
Mr. Fisher, a longtime member of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral and former vice president of development of the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, is survived by his wife, three children, five grandchildren, sister and close mentor.
John T. Fisher's funeral service is open to the public and will be held at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral Tuesday.

A lot of the rest of us who were young adults at that time must hang our heads to think of all that we could have done in those days that we did not do. We can only give thanks and praise to God that John T. Fisher represented us, and pray that it is not too late for us to give our own witness to the justice and mercy of God in some way before we also are called home.

Here is a link to the obituary, with a striking photograph of John T. Fisher on that historic day in Memphis: