A bird in flight in a city.

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

Remembering Olive Tiller

September 11, 2023

She did not 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 seventies, went to clown school and created a new persona, Bubbles the Clown, to entertain at children’s parties. Who, jointly with her husband Carl in 1991, received Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace and Justice Award from American Baptist Churches USA. Who toured Africa with a Church Women United delegation and later worked with Bosnian refugees.

Olive Tiller was a co-laborer within the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, a friend, and source of much encouragement. She died July 23. She was 102.

Her smile, which deserved its own copyright, was like a warm blanket on a frosty night. I am not sure there is such a thing as being modestly regal, but if anyone could be, it was Olive. Gently spirited, I am not sure if she were ever tempted to turn over moneychangers’ tables, but I would not put it past her.

“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.
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.

I still have her last Christmas card from December. In it she mentioned that 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!

Ken Sehested was the first executive director of BPFNA~Bautistas por la Paz. He and his wife, Nancy live in the French Broad watershed of the southern Appalachian Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina. A memorial service for Olive Tiller will be held November 11 at Sherwood Oaks Senior Living Center in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. First published by BPFNA. Used by permission.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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