Saturday afternoon, a remarkable crowd gathered at College Hill Community Church to celebrate the life of a man who made a difference. College Hill isn’t a very big church, but it’s one where the members take their vows on Sunday in church and take action on them every waking minute of the rest of the week. John Ewers was the heart of that church and when you looked at the diverse audience that had gathered and filled the church to capacity, you heard not just the story of John’s life- but the story of churches’ impact on the lives of many.
When people turn to each other at the end of a church service and say “peace be with you” and go about their merry way, and never think of it again until the following Sunday- John lived to bring peace to our planet. His dedication to the peace effort had him standing on street corners protesting and writing letters to the editor often. After his retirement from NCR, he was a huge part of Habitat for Humanity, in fact they called him “Mr. Habitat.” But building houses was the least of his contributions to social justice.
Instead of complaining about the sorry state of the Dayton Daily News, he backed and helped start the “Dayton Voice” (now known as the Dayton City Paper). It was an attempt to bring an alternative, progressive voice to Dayton, and while it’s now a shadow of its former self it remains a part of John’s legacy.
The defining story of John’s life in my eyes was his journey down to Columbus, Georgia, to protest the School of the Americas where the U.S. government was training Latin American troops to take part in propping up undemocratic banana republic regimes. He, along with others from Dayton and Dayton native Martin Sheen were arrested and later fined for their actions. When the fine was levied on John he refused to pay and was sentenced to federal prison, where he served 6 months as a prisoner of conscience. In prison he made the best of his time, ministering to the other prisoners and raising awareness of what was happening at the School of the Americas.
I wrote him in prison and apparently sent a check to help get him out. He wrote me back (letter dated Jul 26,2001) and I read parts of his letter to me at the service:
Your comment in your letter that we have a legal system- not a justice system rings true. I’ve only been incarcerated a week but my daily journaling already has several stories of pure sentencing atrocities.
Regarding your contribution thanks so much. I intend turning it over to SOA Watch to support the movement to close the SOA. You might have thought it would help to pay my fine but I don’t intend to pay it unless the government wants the trouble of coming after it.
In solidarity, J
and the other part that I didn’t read that meant so much to me, coming from a man who was willing to spend 6 months in prison for a cause he believed in was this “I remember well the mask episode. Your message and your win made clear statement of citizen rights”
John’s interest in protesting against the SOA came from a 1998 mission trip to Colombia, where he later spent time working on social justice issues. His impact there was reflected by the presence of people who came to his funeral- all the way from Colombia.
There are many people for whom the extent of their efforts to change the world is accomplished by writing a check to a charity or a cause. Then there are the people like John who eat, sleep and breathe their passion for a more just world.
We’ve lost one of the good guys, and while John’s obituary asked for donations in his name to the social justice effort of your choice, I’d say the real challenge is to volunteer and be the change you want to see in the world. That was John’s way.
His favorite saying, was that “If you aren’t living life on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
Where do you stand and what do you stand for?