Maverick Jack comes to Conference Archives

Blair Galston, May 11, 2015

Something really special happened at the Archives last month. I received an email from a family that is well-known in these parts—a family of one of the saints of our church: the Rev. Dr. Jack Shaver (1918–2001). They were wondering if the Archives would accept a donation of Jack’s records. Would we!

Now, Jack Shaver was a long-time close friend of my predecessor, Bob Stewart, so it goes without saying that Jack was a character. I did not have the good fortune of meeting him, but I’ve come to know him a little through some of the people whose lives he influenced, and the records he left behind. In my peculiar world of archives, where space-time takes on a mystical but palpable quality, Jack Shaver is alive and well. His presence in the Archives is real.

All People’s Mission, Winnipeg

Photo caption: All People’s Mission, Winnipeg

Jack grew up a preacher’s kid in the manse next door to All Peoples’ Mission in Winnipeg’s North End. His father, the Rev. James M. Shaver, succeeded J.S. Woodsworth as the Superintendent of the Mission. Young Jack was shaped and moulded by his environment and by the strong influence of his social activist father. He attended United College in Winnipeg and, following ordination in 1942, served charges in rural Ontario and Manitoba, then Fort Gary United Church in Winnipeg. In 1959, he moved with his wife, Dorothy, and their children to Vancouver, where he served as the very first university chaplain for the United Church (UBC, 1959–1969). According to his Celebration of Life service bulletin, “His unique blend of ‘God talk’, affirmation of ambiguity, and commitment to even the most radical Other, made him the ideal [university chaplain] for the hippies, draft-resistors, anti-war advocates, and disenchanted of the 1960s.”

A classic Jack Shaver pose

Photo caption: A classic Jack Shaver pose

Jack is well known for his work on the staff of First United Church, where he spent the final ten years of his ministry. “In some broken but deeply true way,” he said, “for me, First Church was a coming down where I ought to be.” Here, he encountered the soul-destroying nature of institutional structures. But he felt at home in his advocacy for the rights of the dispossessed, and frequently found himself involved in confrontations with government bureaucracies. “The institution of the church and its structures need our care if [the church] is to serve the gospel and not itself, if it is to be a blessing and not a monster.”

Marion Best is among hundreds of people across the United Church whose lives have been influenced by Jack Shaver. “There was a ‘reverent irreverence’ about Jack that endeared him to many,” she remarked at his memorial service in 2001. “His behaviour at meetings was somewhat unusual. No matter what the meeting was about or where it was being held, he would sit for long periods with his eyes closed, slowly rise from his chair, pace back and forth in his stocking feet with a long scarf draped around his neck, stop to look out the window and sometimes even lie on the floor!”

Rod Booth, another admirer, once declared, “If they ever run a contest to pick who best epitomizes The United Church of Canada, Jack Shaver is going to get my vote” (“Maverick,” The United Church Observer, May 1980).

Jack Shaver has the tough look of an old and crafty boxer.  A man who’s been in many a fight with himself and world.  A man in there punching for the love of life and the love of Christ.  A kind of Irving Layton of the Church.  What makes him different from most men is the nature of his response … To reach out to a hurting, anguished man is his life …  Sam Roddan, Batter My Heart (1975)

Photo caption: "Jack Shaver has the tough look of an old and crafty boxer.  A man who’s been in many a fight with himself and world.  A man in there punching for the love of life and the love of Christ.  A kind of Irving Layton of the Church.  What makes him different from most men is the nature of his response … To reach out to a hurting, anguished man is his life …" - Sam Roddan, Batter My Heart (1975)

The Shaver papers bring so much of Jack’s world to the Archives, and make it available to students, friends, and future researchers. Not only do they provide interesting insights into the development of Jack’s thought, but they reveal some important periods and movements in Canadian history:  the integration of immigrants in Western Canada; the Oxford movement; the turbulence of the 1960s; existentialism and the “death of God” are a few examples. Included in the collection are his student papers from the Second World War era; his “Sidney Chips” articles in a rural Manitoba paper (1947–1952); addresses from about 90 radio broadcasts (Winnipeg and Vancouver); lecture and seminar notes; over 100 prayers; over 600 sermons; sound recordings of conversations, interviews, and addresses; and more.

Samples of Jack’s archives have been carefully scanned by his son-in-law, Bill Reimer, and are available on Bill’s website:  http://billreimer.ca/Shaver

Records of Jack’s father, the Rev. James M. Shaver, are housed at the Manitoba & Northwestern Ontario Conference Archives, located at the University of Winnipeg:  http://nanna.lib.umanitoba.ca/atom/index.php/rev-james-m-shaver-fonds