Remembering Jim Holiman, Local Activist Mentor: Rest In Power

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Jim Holiman

Before there were cell phones, or the internet or Zoom, campus activism in C-U was alive and well. Posters and word of mouth brought people of conscience together for strategy sessions and social justice cultural events at the Illinois Disciples Foundation (IDF)—now gone—at the corner of Springfield and Wright. The late Jim Holiman, who died in November at age 88, was the campus minister there from 1963–99. What a character he was, and what a time it was.

Jim was a strange and wonderful man. A biblical prophet. A provocative trickster. A cantankerous gadfly. A relaxed conversationalist. Quite the storyteller. He could be surprising, exhilarating, puzzling, infuriating, inspiring. Everyone back then had their own Jim Holiman experience.

Jim was a squiggle in a square world, unshackled by conventional expectations. He accepted himself and he accepted you, as you were. So we looked at Jim in all his strangeness, and we thought: “If it’s OK to be him, then it’s OK to be me. If there is room in this world for a Jim Holiman, then there is room in this world for me.” In myself, he awakened a minister. In others, he awakened an activist, or a teacher, or an artist, or a believer, or an atheist to keep the believers honest. There are many friends of Jim out in the world.

There were so many social justice movements here in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. (I compiled a long list, and you could probably add more.) Jim was a free spirit, and he seemed to be everywhere and to know everyone. So much happened around him and so much happened because of him. Who knew that a campus ministry like IDF could be a hotbed of student activism? Civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements. Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Safe women’s space. Sanctuary movement. Common Ground Food Coop (CGFC). People’s Alliance on Central America. Nuclear Freeze. Anti-apartheid/Free Mandela. Pro-choice. Anti-Chief mascot movement. Amnesty International. Liberation theology book group. Gay rights. Radical Bible study. Each of these local movements deserves a history of its own.

Here are a few brief snapshots: in the late 1970s, hunger strikers planned speaking trips to the Illinois State House in support of the ERA.

At the same time, there was a food desert among apartments and houses north of Springfield Avenue, between First and Wright Streets. CGFC was created to serve these students and residents. (The coop is currently alive and well at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana.)

In the 1980s, a stream of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala lived in sanctuary at IDF, accompanied by a large group of volunteers who provided 24-hour support at times when immigration raids were anticipated. These witnesses to war made many local presentations at churches and schools, describing their personal experiences with death squads and army raids against farmers, students, and union members in an era of civil war and repression.

One time 30 massacre survivors, speakers of languages in the Qʼanjobʼalan Mayan group, gathered at IDF for a reunion. It was the first time that they had been together since their mountain village of 300 people had been destroyed by the Guatemalan Army to make way for cattle ranching. Those not killed in that attack scattered to the winds, making their way separately through Mexico and into the US, seeking safety. Since they didn’t find it here, they eventually reached Canada, which offered them farmland so that they could preserve their culture. But for that one night at IDF, they regrouped and planned their trek north.

At the time, U of I students and local church congregations listened to the refugees describe political terror and the assassinations of people who wanted social justice, and we wondered, “Are these survivors travelers from our own future?” And indeed, the current partisan situation in the US resembles that of Central America then more and more every day.

The work that Jim did was more informal than standardized, and he worked better that way. Jim was a catalyst, and brought out the activist in so many of us. Whenever he was involved in something, he made the group different than it would have been without him. Jim was also a strange attractor. Many people gathered and bumped into each other. Jim turned on the light for us, and we saw each other and became friends for life.

Jim had me at hello. At our first meeting, I asked him what the difference is between religious cruelty and any other form of oppression. “Nothing,” he said. “They’re the same”. That was the right answer, and I was hooked. We spent 41 years exploring the war within the Bible between its texts of domination and judgment and its texts of liberation and equality. This inter-Biblical warfare still goes on among its readers. It sets the world on fire. In this struggle, Jim knew which side he was on.

Now we get to the heart of it. Any recollection of Jim is going to be deeply personal and revealing. All masks came off when you talked to Jim, and we became vulnerable. I told him once about a horrible event in my life that left me feeling bad, and this is how he replied: “Why is it that nearly everyone has a story like that?” I felt profound acceptance. I no longer felt so alone. Before I had felt a private shame. Now I felt I was part of a social phenomenon. Now I had company. Jim had that kind of impact on people.

The greatest gift he gave to us was . . . his silence. His quiet. He asked you his personal question, and then he listened. When you answered, he did not comment. He did not step on your thoughts. Jim knew that the way to help people grow is to leave things open-ended, so that they keep thinking at their own pace. Jim didn’t try to persuade us. He did not want to interrupt our self-discovery. He just wanted the conversation to continue on another day, when we were ready to move on. Years later, those conversations still go on, and we remember Jim when they do.

We remember Jim, and the time we had with him. In an alternative universe, he could have been a calculating Civil War General or a sly riverboat gambler, but instead he was here with us, as our strange and wonderful Jim.

Jim was our Socrates, with his probing questions and his silent nod. He was our Johnny Cash with his everyman approachability. He was our Noam Chomsky with his intricate meandering sentences. He was our Falstaff with his infectious laugh. He was our Friedrich Nietzsche with his sharp wit. He was our Dave Dellinger with his calm manner. He was our John the Baptist with his fiery speech. He was our John Brown with his dreams of jubilee emancipation for all people. Jim Holiman was all that. He left his mark in the people who knew him, and we will always remember.

Rick Boyd is a former Illinois Disciples Foundation board member, and currently a minister in Ann Arbor supporting restorative justice. He is also a member of the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan.

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