Mark holding FOR’s celebrated MLK Comic Book as it was being translated and republished in freedom movements worldwide (2011)

Former FOR USA executive director Mark Johnson passed away in North Creek NY on October 12th. What follows is a personal remembrance from Ethan Vesely-Flad, FOR USA’s Director of National Organizing, a friend and former colleague of Mark’s based on his visit to Mark while he was in hospice. 

Dear Mark,

You lovingly read your poetry to me a fortnight ago, sitting across a window-full room from one another in your Adirondack cabin. My soul was filled by your interweaving of language, spirit, nature, emotions. A circus of words, indeed.

In Colombia on human rights accompaniment visit with FOR Peace Presence (2010)

I then described how you’d inspired me to scribe poems this autumn as a gift to my beloved for her born-day. I’ve never written poetry, I self-consciously admitted, but you welcomed a recitation of my latest attempt, penned that morning on the porch swing of my family’s cabin in Bakers Mills, 20 minutes from your Cobble Creek refuge.

You smiled knowingly at the reference to Gore Mountain, and when I described the sparkling garnet in King Edward’s Road, your eyes lit up and Mary murmured an agreement. Upon my final word, you responded, “It’s perfect.”

Rima received my collection this morning with joy and was just reading that very poem when I received the news of your “release.” We embraced.

With admiring parrots in Colombia (2010)

Acorns ground us, you reminded me, as the oak and maple leaves cast their brilliant colors above us and their nuts descended. As I write these words, I am rubbing the acorn seed that’s been protected in my backpack’s inner pocket for the past decade-plus. In late 2007, as you prepared to fly to Tehran – your first of countless international peace journeys as FOR’s executive director – I placed such an acorn in your palm. It had been handed to me about 15 years earlier, I indicated, by the Rev. Peter Holroyd (¡Presente!) at an environmental justice worship service in the high Rocky Mountains. Over those years it had crisscrossed the globe countless times; it tied me to Turtle Island, I said. You received it with care and gratitude, and carried it with you to Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, and then onward in the years that followed…

M enjoying a visit to Mark & Mary’s home in Stony Point (2013)

We lifted up names, places, memories, dreams in the cabin. You shared an unbelievable vision of a “Salt March” this coming November as a nonviolent revolution/resolution to emerge from this extraordinary Election season – an image of millions encircling the White House and then peacefully escorting its current occupant on a thousand-mile peacewalk to Mar-a-Lago, subverting the prospect of an autogolpe/coup. I demurred, but your quixotic proposal is now embedded in my consciousness.
I acknowledged that the news of your hospice decision had come to me in early September just as I finished the book “Dying Well: The Resurrected Life of Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann.” You knew the author, Jeanie’s spouse Bill, and immediately wrote down the title when I described his loving testimonial to Jeanie as a collection of his searing memories and the beautiful missives to community they co-wrote during the eight years of her cancer. I expressed my awe and gratitude for your own commitment to “dying well,” surrounded by the family, trees, and mountains you love.

Mark, Mary, and friends on my front porch in Chichester NY (2011)

There is so much more I could write tonight. I think of our time together co-organizing the “Rebirthing King, Rebirthing America” massive interfaith celebration on the eve of Obama’s inauguration. Of the books upon books you read, quoted, handed me. Of the image of you caressing my firstborn, and how I’ve seen that evoked time and again in delightful photos of you holding half-a-dozen grandchildren.

So I will end instead with words I wrote you seven years ago upon your “retirement” from the Fellowship. They resonate today as then, and I place them on my altar to the ancestors alongside your always-smiling photo.

***********

Dear Mark – aka “FOR Secretary for Contrarianism”:

Speaking at New England Peace Pagoda’s 24th anniversary celebration (2009)

It has been an honor and a pleasure to work with you for a half-dozen intensive, engaging, exhausting, and inspiring years. I can’t figure out whether it feels more like yesterday or a quarter-century ago that we first met at Shadowcliff – you having flown in from the west coast, eagerly accepting an invitation to interview … canceling plans so as to take advantage of the rare opportunity for our dispersed search committee to be in one place. I remember talking with other committee members afterward about how “countercultural” you seemed – as an older person who acted so young and energized, engaging with technology (an early adapter if I ever saw one) and horizontal decision-making in ways that a person decades your junior might.

Then our first deep one-on-one: we sat down in the old FOR Communications office on the third floor to have a conversation that would be published in “Fellowship.” I will never forget how you began to cry at the end of the interview – not out of pain but of joy, out of a sense of being touched in some way by what we shared. Of course, it was not the first and would not be the last time I saw you shed tears in the presence of others. I am so moved that in that way and many others – your commitment to intergenerational “mutual mentoring,” to “360-degree” peer reviews, to responding to anger with subversive love – you break the mold of what it means to be male, to be a leader, to be “strong,” with courage and creativity.

Mark, Leila Zand, and friends in Jaffa on the Gaza Freedom March (2009)

Throughout these years you have embodied what it is to be a beloved community member. With poetic and loving tenderness you preach peace, practice peace, pray for peace (your “P6” quality) while forthrightly joining the forces of resistance to the principalities and powers that dominate our globe. You think globally, act locally, marking the intersections of human dignity and creation-centered compassion. You are Micah: acting justly, loving mercifully, and walking humbly with the God and spirit that you follow.

Each one of us knows through personal trial and tribulation that these qualities are true. For me, the health challenges that Rima and I have experienced have brought these to the fore. (My lasting memory of my kidney stone episode in December will likely not be the spare, chilled environment of the emergency room, but the wonderful photos you took of M and you “dinosaur hunting” at the Rockefeller Preserve.) May the rest of your days be spent on the Hudson and in the Adirondacks (with an occasional visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains!), and your nights be surrounded by SJ and other grandchildren to come.

In loving gratitude and eternal peace,

Ethan

Ethan Vesely-Flad is the Director of National Organizing for the Fellowship of Reconciliation.