Editorial : Graeme White RIP

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 42, Spring 2007

Graeme White, a deeply committed Christian all his life and a valued Catholic Worker core group member for 15 years, was a legend among the poor, the mentally ill and the dispossessed in Christchurch. Tragically he drowned, 11 August 2007, in Lyttelton Harbour while trying to swim back from a day’s conservation work planting trees on Quail Island. Sadly, the sea has yet to yield his body.

Graeme was a true Christian radical and a prophet in our time. What work he did, how he spent his money and time, how he travelled, how he used his talents, how he behaved, how he lived and loved – he examined every facet of his life in the light of the Gospel of Jesus and acted accordingly. This took him to examine the roots of what he was doing and why he did things. That is what radicals do. This was reflected in the way Graeme approached what food he ate, how he travelled (mainly by cycle), what work he did (mainly manual), how he would be paid, how he would use his earnings, what justice campaigns he would support and what would be his own individualistic response. It even concerned how he dressed. His latest campaign of wearing sackcloth and little else, which many of us found awkward, reflected his distain for the modern celebrity culture and the money-making machine it represents. For Graeme, ‘clothes didn’t maketh the man.’ He believed human beings were beautiful without clothes as God had made them!

Many people, including the mainstream corporate media, were confronted by his lifestyle and wrote him off as ‘an eccentric.’ From some perspectives, this is understandable. He certainly did not fit into nor did he accept many of the tenets of the modern consumer society. Too often he found it heartless and largely destructive of human goodness.

But from a Christian viewpoint, it is a description that does him a disservice. He was a man formed by the Gospels and transformed by the Spirit of the Risen Christ. He was a true believer to the point where his beliefs affected every area of his life. In a world which has made an idol of greed and wealth, he chose voluntary poverty over acquisition of wealth and goods. Despite having a university degree, he chose to be a humble labourer gardening or milking cows rather than seeking status. He chose non-violence over force. He saw abortion as violence against the most defenceless and chose to protect the unborn in the face of a cultural practice of widespread abortion. He chose to be a peacemaker in a world dominated by militarism and war over precious resources like oil and minerals. He chose love and forgiveness over hatred and discrimination. He chose the pathway of the non-violent Jesus – and paid a heavy price for his choice.

That is why the dispossessed knew that in Graeme White they had a champion and an advocate. He was as close to the spirit of St Francis as anyone we’ve met. Despite being baptised and remaining a Protestant in the Martin Luther King sense, he was ecumenical, a Catholic Worker in the best understanding of that term. His commitment to personalism, voluntary poverty, pacifism, manual work, social justice, outreach to the poor, simplicity of lifestyle, community building were unequivocal and sat at the centre of his spirituality and lifestyle.

Graeme was a risk taker. Maybe he took one risk too many in attempting his final journey. Who knows? But we can say that his life of dedication, radical commitment to the Gospel, focused activity, voluntary poverty, and commitment to social justice made him unique in our little movement. Graeme had a special charism for the mentally ill and for peacemaking. He was a genuine pacifist, drawing strength for his life from the power of Christ in the midst of the community. He was the resident guitarist at the Wednesday evening Catholic Worker liturgies, at the weekly Sunday morning Hillmorton Hospital service, regular in supporting prison ministry over many years. He also peeled the spuds each week for the Catholic Worker communal meal and then washed the dishes after it had finished. His favourite saying when complimented was ‘no worries.’

And now he has gone. Taken suddenly from our midst. A surprising thing. His body may be who knows where. But we know his spirit lives on. We all believe Graeme will have received a warm welcome into heaven upon his arrival. He carried no violence or acrimony in his heart, had reached out in love to all and sundry every day for many years. Surely, he would have heard the words of Jesus, ‘well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joys of eternal life.’

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