living the faith
Cape Town Unitarian's journey from mayor to minister
by Olivia Holmes and Tom Stites
Gordon Oliver is embarking on his fifth career at the age of 63, and he's definitely not retiring. "I'm blossoming," says the new minister of the Unitarian Church of Cape Town, South Africa.
Oliver, who was ordained last year, has been a member of the church since 1989, when his third career was in blossom, as the activist mayor of Cape Town in the tumultuous last days of apartheid. Two days before he was sworn in, police killed dozens of Blacks taking part in a peaceful protest. Immediately after his inauguration, Gordon walked to the memorial service to honor the victims. There he pledged to join Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a protest march, disregarding the government's long-standing ban on protests. "Mayor Defies Law" read the headline in the Cape Times. A year later, apartheid had crumbled.
Oliver's commitment to social justice is no less strong now but his congregation can look forward to a much calmer time with him as their minister rather than their mayor, Oliver said with a smile while passing through Boston. Fresh from a semester as minister in residence at Meadville Lombard Theological School, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago, he was visiting friends and family and Boston-area Unitarian shrines.
The Cape Town church, the biggest of the three Unitarian congregations in South Africa, has about eighty members. The average age is over 60, but new faces have been appearing. Oliver has introduced adult education programming and plans to start a church school to attract younger members with an interest in social action.
"We can't change everything overnight, but we're on the threshold of a big opportunity. Unitarianism is so right for this country right now. There are millions out there seeking something other than orthodoxy."
Oliver is a slender, soft-spoken man with a narrow face and a wide smile. He told his story over breakfast at the UUA's Eliot and Pickett Houses, and as people came into the dining room he greeted every one of them with the reflexive smile and handshake of a natural politician.
His path to the ministry began, in a sense, at the age of 12, in 1953, when Colored South Africans were disenfranchised from the vote. "I became convinced I had to do something to give meaning to my passion for justice," Oliver said, "so I became a teenage political volunteer."
When careers in human resources and environmental education didn't change the world enough for Oliver, he ran for and was elected to the Cape Town City Council, then chosen for terms as deputy mayor and as His Worship the Mayor. After his term he headed the Cape Town Tourism Board for seven years, then served as co-director of the 1999 Parliament of World Religions.
When the Rev. Robert Steyn, Cape Town's Unitarian minister for eighteen years, died in 1997, and with the congregation adrift and in mourning, Oliver says, "My own vision of ministry came. I realized that I might be able to join my passion for Unitarianism with my passion for Cape Town and build up the faith."
Oliver became the congregation's unofficial minister as a volunteer, and in 2000 the church hired him as minister in training. He studied in England and at the University of South Africa and was officially recognized as a minister last year by the British General Assembly.
This culminated a circuitous religious journey that began when he was born to Catholic parents. "As a kid, I had wanted to be a priest one day," Oliver remembers, "but I left the church in my teens because it lost its meaning for me. From about 16 to 26 I was unchurched. Then I tried the Methodist church down the street; the minister was very outspoken and very anti-apartheid. I left orthodoxy completely in the early '80s I became a sufi."
Now, Oliver said, "I am mostly a follower of Jesus, but I don't want to be confined to that." He is interested in Buddhism and still finds Sufism consonant with Unitarianism, although more meditative. "They promote the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity," he said. "In a very universal way they draw from all the world's religions."
With such an eclectic religious experience, why is he a Unitarian?
"I love the idea that I can be part of a religion that has an open and free liberal approach to spirituality, that doesn't bind us with orthodoxies and dogma," Oliver said. "I am a Unitarian particularly because of our commitment to social action. Otherwise, it's just an armchair religion."
Olivia Holmes is a contributing editor to UU World and director of international and interfaith relations for the UUA. Tom Stites is editor of the magazine.