Olive Tiller remembrance

Ken Sehested

Olive Tiller’s name will not be recognized outside a relatively small circle. But she is legendary in my universe. She died recently, at the fulsome age of 102.

Below is a short meditation on her luminous presence—written not simply in her honor but as tribute to the countless, faith-full people who will never have a Wikipedia page tribute. Theirs are the arms that uphold the universe day after day.

Let it be said of her as the Sufi mystic Rabia testified: Neither threat of hell or desire of heaven, but love’s longing alone animated by delight in the Beloved’s promise and presence and provision. Or, as Augustine wrote, “We imitate whom we adore.”

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She didn’t look the part—if, by “part,” you mean a peacemaking, justice seeking, human rights advocating activist. No growl in her voice, rarely a furrowed brow (as the stereotype suggests).

This was a woman who attended the first public meeting of the newly-formed Baptist Pacifist Fellowship meeting in May 1940—when she was 19 years old! Decades later, she was elected the organization’s first female president.

This was a woman for whom a school dorm was named in rural Tanzania. A woman who, along with her son Bob, participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March (the second, aborted attempt, when a federal judge’s temporary restraining order was issued).

She participated in a World Council of Churches visit to Cambodia seeking an end to the Vietnam War. Who still had the scorecard she filled out for the 1962 Major League All-Star baseball game. Who was arrested at the South African embassy protesting apartheid.

This was a woman who, in her 70s, went to clown school and created a new persona, Bubbles the Clown, to entertain at children’s parties. Who, jointly with her husband, Carl, received the American Baptist Churches Dahlberg Peace Award. Who toured Africa with a Church Women United delegation and later worked with Bosnian refugees.

I’m speaking of Olive Tiller, a co-laborer within the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, a friend, and source of much encouragement.

Her smile, which deserved its own copyright, was like a warm blanket on a frosty night. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as being modestly regal, but if anyone could be, it was Olive. Gently spirited, I’m not sure if she was ever tempted to turn over money-changers’ tables, but I wouldn’t put it past her.

(In a delightful-but-totally-exaggerated comment she once called me the “Oral Hershiser of peace activists.” But you would have to be of a certain age and inclination to appreciate that baseball reference.)

In a recent note, her son Bob said, “She was willing to be a leader when needed and a follower when needed.” Such virtue is among the greatest needs—but least celebrated—of our movements. Would that all our movements were teeming with such multi-abled advocates.

Among her last wishes was that friends and acquaintances contribute to the Southern Poverty Law Center in her memory.

Olive Marie Tiller died on 23 July at age 102. I still have her last Christmas card from December. In it she mentioned some of the ways age was limiting her activities, but was quick to add, “I hope you enjoy every lovely thing that this world offers.” It reminded me of that brief proverb from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

I have no doubt that she would say to us: Instill in your young ones the confidence that beauty will outlast terror.

Olive Tiller: ¡Presente!

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August 2023. A memorial service for Olive Tiller has been scheduled for 11 November at Sherwood Oaks senior living center in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania.