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John Shields Memorial Gave Ample Witness to 'A Big Life'

Volume 31, Issue 4,5 & 6, May 30, 2017

Dale Perkins, Victoria

“It’s bad enough he’s going to die in a few weeks. But tomorrow? That was too much.” (Quotes is from Shield’s wife Robin June Hood, The New York Times, May 28th page 20)

     Rarely are accurate, personal portraits of a deceased person heard at Memorials.  There is simply too much emotional baggage carried by family and friends to permit honesty and candor. Nevertheless, when family members and folks officiating allow for a certain amount of candor to reign over the proceedings, then extraordinary testimonials and portraits of the deceased happen. 
     To a considerable degree that occurred at John Shield’s Memorial, Sunday April 9th, held at the magnificent ball room of the Grand Pacific Hotel in downtown Victoria.  Although only estimating, I thought over 400 people attended, and the architects of the event invited perhaps twelve speakers and a couple of musicians to give their eulogies and share memories and stories.
     Obviously we were dealing with a big life. We heard how John came out of the heart and soul of Texas over 78 years ago. We learned of his Roman Catholic background and how family members looked on him to become the quintessential Roman Catholic leader, not only for the US American scene, but for the whole world.  
     John threw his considerable intellect and talent into becoming such a religious leader, first with the Paulist brothers, and later with enthusiasts for the Second Vatican Council. However, his religious underpinnings became a source of trial and tribulation, as the institutional church pulled back their support, finding people like John to be too radical for their orthodoxy.  
     Realizing his church wasn’t able to  embrace another theology and pedagogy, John left the church and married, moving first to Vancouver where he toiled as a Social Worker, rising up through the ranks of the Union representing workers in all public services in the Province of BC, and ending up being voted the President of the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU) for two terms. He moved to Victoria and remained a resident there until his death.
     John touched many lives: workers and staff personnel inside the BCGEU, the extended family circle, friends who were engaged with John in social justice activities and causes in the Province. His earlier experiences standing alongside community and religious leaders during the Civil Rights movement (with such leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates and the community labour leader, Caesar Chavez) were well documented and celebrated. 
     One of his stellar qualities was an ability to listen intently to folks who were experiencing terrible turmoil in their lives and to support them in their desire to have a life without pain and suffering.
     He wrestled with the agony of belonging to the male gender, with all of our sex-role stereotypes demanding satisfaction. And he overcame those proclivities and became a friend and companion to many women throughout his life. Their love of John was fully evident throughout his life, and particularly pronounced during the remaining months of his life.
     Very public and evident was his decision to secure medical assistance in dying. John was diagnosed with a terminal illness after he and his partner Robin June Hood survived a car accident. He realized his life would not continue for much longer. Therefore, in typical John Shields fashion he consulted with family and friends and subsequently decided he would end his life at a time of his choosing. 
     Fortuitously he met a medical doctor who supported his wish, and together with family and friends at hand he died the morning of Friday, March 24th, 2017. His body remained at their home on King George Terrace Road for several days, until it was taken to a crematorium. The remaining ashes were held in a ceremonial box which rested along with other mementos in the room where the memorial took place.
     Ray Painchaud asked for permission from family to make a video of the proceedings. I was granted permission to view it prior to writing this testimonial. It is held by Robin and family as a lasting testimonial of all that happened that Sunday, April 9th gathering.
     To attempt a complete recollection of everything said that day would be long and unnecessary. Those who spoke said what they wanted to say to the rest of us. Songs sung and played were selected because they were favorites of John. In many respects we were party to another way of viewing life and death and the evolving consciousness that many are able to articulate. 
     All seemed to grow out of experiences people have had of John throughout his life. And very decidedly the spirit present that day was grounded on the conviction that the energy forces present in John continues now and into the future. 
     There were no references to classical Christian theological dogmas and doctrines; John would have none of that. So we all were attempting to express feelings and convictions that were articulations which make sense now and convey realities that we are conscious of today. 
     Certainly no one felt compelled to analyse or correct expressions other people shared; there was a sense of honoring each and every expression speakers offered. Again, it felt as though John would have appreciated what people shared, and has already communicated the same in new ways with those who had the honour to be asked to speak at the Memorial.
Dale Perkins was a founder of Progressive Spirituality Circle (see ad below) of which John Shields was an active member.