I got the call last week late in the evening from my doctoral advisor and friend, Pat Keifert. Jannie Swart died earlier that day from a massive heart attack. I was stunned.
Jannie and I were students together under Pat’s tutelage at Luther Seminary, along with my dear friends and colleagues John Ogren and Scott Hagley. I consider it one of the great blessings of my life that we were all colleagues, and that I had two years to learn from Jannie, that I had two years to drink beer with him, that I had two years to be his neighbor in the small apartments provided for Luther students.
Jannie was a larger than life kind of guy. Beyond his imposing size, Jannie brought rich life experience together with an impressive breadth of education and a contagious passion for life. A South African, Jannie was the young senior pastor of the largest Dutch Reform church in Johannesburg during the difficult days of the dismantling of apartheid. Through the strength of his will, character and gospel convictions he was instrumental in integrating that church. Jannie had been in Mandela’s presence, prayed at his birthday party, and lived and breathed progress in South Africa. He not only had a seat for history, he participated in its unfolding.
I sat with Jannie and his family the night President Obama was elected. He felt so fortunate to have been in South Africa when Mandela came to power and in America the night a country with a horrible racial past elected an African-American president. He cared deeply about issues of inclusion and power. For him, the measure of any theology was its relation to and exercise of power.
After finishing his PhD at Luther, Jannie pastored a Presbyterian church in a small town outside of Pittsburgh and a year ago took a full-time teaching position at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I attended his memorial service this past Friday at PTS, and it was clear that in a short time he had left an indelible impression both places. PTS felt his loss as a grievous wound at the heart of the direction they were leaning as a Seminary–after just one year with Jannie. Speaker after speaker took Jannie’s themes as their own and spoke with deep longing to lean into his vision of life in both the Kingdom and the world. This pleased John, Scott and I as we listened to others describe Jannie. They knew him and loved him well. And it was hardly a surprise.
The three of us knew Jannie as both saint and scoundrel. We imagined he would have stood up in the middle of the service and in his inimitable South African accent would have insisted that all of this praise of him was f****** b*******, one of his favorite theological phrases after a beer or two. And I’ll just say that it’s just like Jannie to die when its his turn to buy the beer. It seemed to always be my turn when Jannie was around.
Jannie and I had our moments of deep conflict. I learned from Jannie that I am no Reformed theologian, and sometimes that appeared to me as being no theologian at all in Jannie’s estimation. And we struggled the way a lot of PhD students do from the competition of writing papers and understanding books and pleasing our professors, especially Pat.
But these more jagged parts of Jannie, and my own, could not be separated from the passions and temperaments that made him a transitional figure in people’s lives. A historical figure. And they fit his theological eye that refused anything that smacked of abstraction, and that valued the God who necessarily appears in the messiness (one of his favorite English words) of creaturely experience.
On a more personal level, I enjoyed being with Jannie. He thought he had the greatest taste in music–Neil Diamond, Phil Collins, Tina Turner. It made me smile with amusement (after all, I know good music) when he would show me DVD clips from a Phil Collins’ concert, like it was angels singing to shepherds in a field on a glorious night. He loved going to his kids ballgames. He laughed hard and loud and often at himself. Even during those brief seasons when I didn’t like Jannie, I loved him.
I was so thankful for a day this past November that we spent together at SBL. It was a surprising gift to both of us. We went to sessions on Process Theology and the emergent church, on Levinas, and on missional hermeneutics. We ate together and laughed together and remembered how much we valued each other.
It was too soon to lose him. Much too soon. And he was doing brilliant and unique work that will be orphaned. And he left a wife and kids who still need him. And friends, like me, whose life will be much poorer because he is not here.
I loved Jannie. He was my brother-in-law – we were married to sisters – and friend. We argued a lot, since he sometimes had too much to say about my work as pastor in a rural, conservative “platteland” community, while understanding nothing about platteland people and not knowing a thing about the hard road prodding a small, Afrikaans, farming community with very strong racist sentiments along the road towards a post-apartheid South Africa, having taken the easy road of ministering in a large big-city parish after previously working with students, as I used to tell him. He also knew shit about rugby and cricket – luckily Janco had me to teach him proper cricket shots.
I will miss him, miss his wisdom, miss the arguments, miss drinking Castle beer on Stilbaai beach, miss braaiing a few tjops and some boerewors, miss talking bullshit. I shall even miss his wise-ass comments on cricket.
You’ve said a lot of nice things about Jannie. I will add just this: he was, all together, a great human being.
I’m so honored you read.
Thanks for your great pieces on our dear friend Jannie. Mark’s tribute speaks all about Jannie, a great guy whom God chose to call early in our comprehension. Without forgetting God’s true promise of the resurrection, may I add that as an African theologian and former colleague behind the footsteps of the foursome (and more) year-mates at Luther Seminary, the African academy has lost a great theological scholar. While Jannie had made a great impact at the Presbyterian Church and PTS during his short stint in Ptts, we in Africa were anticipating some robust scholarship from this great mind. Jannie was an unassuming person who believed in African solidarity and cared about what God was up to in Africa. Perhaps, his stay in the States, which was undoubtedly a calling from God, did not yet permit him to impact Africa directly, but in my imagination that was going to happen in due course. It is therefore pleasing to hear the voices of his most intimate friends, like Mark’s tribute and relatives, like Manus, his colleagues, and most importantly from his beloved wife, Marie. We shall always remember him, Marie and their beautiful children.