Today I attended the memorial service of an old teacher of mine, John Fish. He was an activist, teacher, pastor, co-founder of the ACM Urban Studies Program, founder of the Princeton Project ’55. He was on boards and an active member of numerous community non-profit organizations including the Woodlawn Organization, the Fifth Ward Citizens Committee, the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights Advisory Board, the Charter Board of the Woodlawn Community School, to name just a few.
I met John Fish in the ACM Urban Studies Program, which he co-founded, in 1969, in the very first year of this still existing program. It took place in Chicago where we college students were exposed to the workings of the city in a very visceral and experiential way. We got a list each week of the protests and marches, community meetings and speakers of note and were to attend as many of them as possible. We each had an internship as well. I worked for the Conspiracy Seven during the trial in 1969 and even got to get into the trial a couple of times. Others worked for welfare agencies, social justice theater groups, halfway houses, alternative schools, various political groups. We read about the history of urban America, especially Chicago, and had conversations (sometimes shouting matches) with a variety of shakers and movers in the city at the time. We met in small groups with our peers in the program to discuss, debrief, imagine, brainstorm, try to understand our experiences. We lived in cheap apartments scattered throughout the city.
I remember John’s optimism and upbeat spirit even when he was teaching/discussing the worst of injustices, political corruption, racial inequities. His was an enthusiastic vision filled with hope that change could really be made and that each of us had the powerful capacity to ignite and make manifest that change.
Today’s memorial service was heartfelt and it was clear the impact John had on a wide variety of people and institutions in the community. The phrase that kept coming up was a phrase that John used abundantly in his last sermon just two months ago— the power of creative dislocation, first coined by his teacher Robert McAfee Brown at Union Theological Seminary. This is the notion that by putting oneself in new places and situations, different from the usual and expected, one’s growth and ability to change is heightened. John clarified it as “what we see depends on where we are located. By location I mean not only our geographic location but our race, gender, social class, our family, our schooling, our upbringing. Our location is who we are and this determines to a large extent what we think and what we do. If we do not change our location then we are simply continuing along a path that is laid out for us, that is prescribed for us. We never grow.”
To live a full and meaningful life, we need to push beyond the expected, take risks, step outside of ourselves generating compassion and a commitment to justice. Engagement in community feeds our empathy and generosity of spirit. When I joined the Urban Studies Program in 1969 and was “creatively dislocated,” my drive for social justice became fearless.
In brilliant sunlight, as John’s grown children poured his ashes into a shallow, freshly dug hole in the east courtyard garden of the church and unexpectedly breathed in some of the dust of his ashes carried away by the cool breeze, I couldn’t help but wonder at John’s stepping into this ultimate of creative dislocations.