It is with deep sadness that we share that our organization’s superhero, Mr. John Mathias Brown, has died. Mr. Brown spent his 80 years creating memories with tens of thousands of people from Tunisia to Israel, Cuba to the United States, and every patch of Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica. We are forever grateful to have gotten to learn, to struggle, to laugh, and to create stronger communities together.
This post is written by Amizade’s executive director, Brandon Blache-Cohen.
Mr. Brown was a memory factory, creating an endless supply of inspiring, sometimes humorous, always meaningful stories. The stuff he told you — whether tales from the cane fields or the kibbutz — really stuck. And the activities you did together were always cherishable. He was like a moth trap for big experiences; anything and anyone near his path got caught and rewarded with wide-eyed, purposeful days.
The first time I ever met him he told me three things:
- He was dying. (This was not true.)
- He gave me advice, saying “You’ll never get everyone to believe in all of your ideas, no matter how good they are.” For those resisters, he told me we “should work twice as hard.” I trust this as the best community development advice I will ever receive.
- Even though he loved America (and had cried twice for it: first, when JFK was assassinated and then again on September 11th), for 50 years the country had rejected his ability to get a visa, so he had never stepped foot in the USA.
As a 20-something with a lot of ambition and very little patience, I promised then-60-something Mr. Brown that I would get him a visa. I had no idea if this was actually possible, particularly due to his relationship with the Cuban government, but given my youth and ignorance, there was no turning back. Surprisingly, it ended up being quite easy. It turns out that when you have letters from 8 different universities begging the State Department to invite an unthreatening old man to speak on their campuses, they sometimes listen.
Of course, when Mr. Brown showed up for his visa interview in Kingston, he confused, surprised, and impressed the US official. The way Mr. Brown told the story, I always imagined a 9-year-old child working behind the desk at the embassy:
The little boy isn’t being combative in a mean way, but is genuinely amazed by a tall nuanced pensioner and can’t believe this guy is being invited to speak on college campuses despite the fact that Mr. Brown had never even made it to high school. The boy then comes to terms that he is in fact seeing a real-life superhero, and as his jaw drops to the floor like a cartoon, he stamps Mr. Brown’s visa for 10 years.
A few months later, we were on the road in Big America.
We went to eight states on that trip. Like a presidential candidate, he shook hands with thousands people; said many of the same jokes over and over (the 3 S’s – sun, sand, and he always forgot what the other one was…); held and kissed babies (including my niece a few hours after she was born); saw snow for the first time (and played like a child); had a hilarious run in with a state patrol officer; sat in front of the White House and reflected on how fast things change, but not fast enough; and shared in one of the most important, mind-blowing conversations of my life (which I now realize was a weekly occurrence for him).
The trip culminated with the most dramatic and messy flight I ever hope to take; the type of experience that bonds even the most unlikely of friends. Thanks to a blizzard and some Sam Adams beer, it was a hilarious and terrifying series of moments. When I think of this day, I know have the best job in the world.
Forging unlikely friendships was a Mr. Brown speciality, which is why he was the best global educator I’ve ever met. Learning collectivism in Israel and navigating a poverty in Bangladesh that even he as “a primary school boy” had never seen, Mathias was educated by the world. He famously told people that the young Finnish scholar — Monica Frölander-Ulf — staying in the community was an expert in karate to ensure that no one messed with her. Talk about innovative cross-cultural communication. From Tunisia to Cuba, he was inspired to welcome people to his community not only to help it progress, but for the brilliance of Westmoreland to be exported around the world — which it has and will do forever over and over in his memory. His lessons will be recycled and reimagined in corners of the globe he never got to see, and the power of Petersfield adopted by people who will never know his name.
Today, in Bolivia, just the same as Puerto Rico and Ireland and Trinidad and Ghana and hundreds of neighborhoods in the US and Canada, people are celebrating Mr. Brown’s life in solidarity. Of course they are. He taught us how to welcome all people, even when it’s not considered appropriate. He sometimes bucked country and regional norms to do so, to open his home to LGBTQ visitors, to folks who could be controversial, to students who were depressed or scared or lost, to people who weren’t always given fair treatment or opportunities, and during hurricanes and earthquakes.
I’ve learned that justice is far too rare in this world, but when I was around Mr. Brown, his leadership — the courage that is all-too lacking in politicians and corporate boardrooms and school boards and at dinner tables — reminded me that justice is possible and always worth pursuing.
Mr. Brown was very good at putting pressure on people. In the same way the late American civil rights leader John Lewis used to talk about “good trouble”, Mr. Brown created a certain brand of “good pressure.” Pressure to be better, to step out of our comfort zones, to talk into a microphone for the first time, to do something you don’t know how to do, and to honor something or someone you didn’t realize was worth celebrating. To Mr. Brown, everyone seemed worthy of celebration. It’s his admirable pressure and ability to acknowledge others that made him a mentor to so many people all over the world. He uniquely was able to create a type of pressure that you reject from your parents and peers if they put on you, but somehow you respected, adhered, and absolutely adored it with Mr. Brown.
He was a compulsive documentarian. Videos and pictures and social media and print media and media instruction and audio recordings and flags and maps and shrines and memories and anything and everything that could be documented would be. He was a protector from mother nature, from the devastation of hurricanes and other natural disasters, climate change, and political ignorance. He was a peacemaker and a seeker of community justice. He was a flawed experiementer — the perfect type — failing forward often. A rare statesmen and a mediocre lip-syncer, he was loved by the Cuban Ambassador, the Governor General, the man sleeping on the street, the girl with no parents, and all the foreigners with no Patwa. He was a larger-than-life husband, father, grandfather, and brother, and when we traveled together exhausted me with loving stories of his family.
Mr. Brown grew the biggest yams (literally) and the quietest revolutions. Somehow, between his social action, activism, and philanthropy, he made space to be a really nice human. When he learned my parents were going to be in Jamaica, he invited them to Petersfield and threw my dad a birthday party. When given the opportunity, he always opted to help a young community member to go to college or to America instead of himself. And when tragedy would strike elsewhere — like the Tree of Life massacre in our neighborhood in Pittsburgh — he was always
among the first to send condolences and messages of hope. As we mourned that week, he sent me a note that reminded me that our work is part of the solution. I can’t express how important that was and remains to me.
Over 1,000 people were inspired directly by Mr. Brown through our partnership and hundreds of thousands indirectly. The word inspiration is not anecdotal, as we have 20 years of data that empirically shows that Mr. Brown changed the lives of nearly everyone he got to speak to and serve with. He turned more than a few would-be jerks into empaths and some likely do-gooders into global leaders. We use terms like career goal clarification and civic engagement levels. He had a far better way of measuring the impact of our partnerships: how many young people would cry before they got on the plane home. It was always a lot.
Beyond his practical, real-life accomplishments (which are endless and enduring), Mr. Brown modeled the secrets of true joy and justice for our planet.
He crafted a brilliant recipe: gather good people, tell funny and important stories, nap, then dance, welcome outsiders with open arms, then do really big things together, and document it well. Then take the ugliest thing in your community and turn it into the most beautiful, and repeat.
That’s how you change the world.
Thank you, Mr. Brown.
We send our love to his family and will update our network with ways to support the community, reflect, and mourn as they develop.