The Maryknoll Lay Missioners community mourns Maryknoll Brother John Beeching, who died on Friday July 8. He worked with and inspired many lay missioners and was a beloved friend and mentor to many. The Maryknoll Society will livestream his funeral Mass on Monday, July 18, 11 am EDT.
Brother John grew up in Canada and became a nurse before joining the Maryknoll Society as a Maryknoll Brother 56 years ago. He was 82 years old.
He first served with Maryknoll in Chile and then in the Middle East (Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon). In war-ravaged Beirut, he experienced numerous narrow escapes from mortar attacks and terrorist bombings. It was also a time when he first became involved in interfaith dialogue, a passion of his that remained strong during the rest of his life.
Much of his work in Thailand involved accompanying Mon refugees and monks, who, beginning in 1988, had fled government oppression in Burma (now Myanmar) and taken shelter at a Buddhist temple in Bangkok. “When I accepted a mission assignment to Thailand in 1990,” John wrote in Maryknoll magazine, “I had no idea I would be working with refugees, but helping these most vulnerable people has given me the greatest fulfillment as a missioner.”
As we remember Brother John and the Maryknoll Society in our prayers, we also gratefully remember his friendship and accompaniment of many lay missioners. He invited many lay missioners and volunteers to join him in his work over the years.
Vicki Armour-Hileman is one such returned lay missioner, who worked with him from 1992 until 1994. She wrote the following tribute:
Brother John Beeching used to say that being a missionary brother was about being so in love with God that your love spills over and you fall in love with the rest of the world.
In the more than 50 years that Brother John served as a Maryknoll missioner, that love spilled over to encompass the people of Chile, various places in the Middle East, and finally, since 1990, refugees and migrants from Myanmar, primarily in Thailand.
It was in this ministry to refugees that I met him in 1992, when, as a lay missioner, I worked alongside him in the project he began at Wat Prok, a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, to help Mon refugees fleeing the military regime in Myanmar.
John taught English to the monks and also ran a medical program that sought help for torture victims, amputees, injured and ill refugees, and orphans — all of whom were sheltering at the temple under the protection of the monks, who were often themselves leaders in the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar.
One of my strongest memories of him was the time when one of the refugees was dying. Brother John was especially heartbroken because the man was dying of diseases that would have been treatable if he had been in a wealthy country where he could have received medical attention earlier. Because the refugees were coming with nothing, the man had not been able to access help, and by the time Brother John learned about the case, the situation had gone past the point where the man could be saved.
When it was clear that nothing further was possible to help the refugee, Brother John sat with him on the floor in the Buddhist temple, held him, and sang to him while he died so that he would know he was not alone.
I think in that moment he taught me what it really means to be truly present. When all other options were exhausted, he chose to simply be a brother, a fellow human, sharing in the suffering of another.
The compassion he shared certainly knew no boundaries of ethnicity, culture or even faith. Both his work in the Middle East and his work in Thailand was often among people from other faith traditions, and he welcomed those encounters as a way to better know the God who is bigger than any single sacred story.
At the Buddhist Temple, you would often see him joining the Buddhist monks at their prayers. He would sit humbly behind them, with the young boys, a learner, letting the sound of their chanting wash over him.
Heavily influenced by the expansive and contemplative spirituality of Thomas Merton, he was drawn to the meditative practices of Asian traditions and liked to tell the story of a Buddhist nun who taught that when we are moved by compassion, we recognize that we are all one family.
These descriptions make him sound completely saintly and somewhat somber, but perhaps what I loved most about John Beeching was his irreverence and his outrageous sense of humor. He was fond of regaling the Thai missioner community with stories, underlining dramatic points with wild gestures and laughing appreciatively at his own jokes over the dinner table.
Once he told everyone that I had given the entire Maryknoll community in Thailand food poisoning at Christmas by roasting a turkey without taking the plastic wrapper off. It wasn’t true — or rather, I had indeed accidentally fed everyone a poisonous Turkey, but there was no plastic wrapping involved, just a lack of refrigeration at the store where we had bought the meat. I did not always correct him, however, because I had to agree with him that it was a lot funnier and made a much better story if he mimed feeling around in his mouth for burnt plastic and fishing it out with a puzzled expression.
Along with his fondness for a good story, he also had a keen appreciation for beauty. He took stunning photos that captured the flow of everyday life in Asia: Buddhist monks in their orange robes walking barefoot or sheltering from the tropical heat under their colorful umbrellas. His eye for detail showed in snapshots like the one he took of Buddhist monk leaning against a balcony, completely absorbed in reading the Gospels.
These photos and stories, too, were a sign of how much he had fallen in love with the world and relished its flamboyant colors, and appreciated every detail of human life, despite the presence of injustice and suffering that are part of the human story.
I imagine Brother John now regaling God with stories, with the same gusto with which he used to tell them around our table at the Center House in Thailand. And I imagine even God having to laugh at his many adventures.
In the meantime, to say that he will be missed down here is a colossal understatement. Then again, when someone loves God and the world to the extent that Brother John did, I think there is something of eternity in that love itself. It doesn’t leave us just because he is gone. His compassion, his exuberance for life, his reverence for Spirit, his wisdom, his ability to embrace what it means to be a brother to all he met — these remain with us, offering an example the rest of us can only hope to follow.
From Steve Chinnavaso:
Brother John was a wonderfully vibrant and dedicated missioner, full of life, love, song, erudition, and humor. I first met him in Thailand in 2006 when I began my mission journey with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and since then, we shared time with each other every year at our annual Maryknoll Asia gathering in Hua Hin, Thailand, until 2020.
There is so much I will remember about Brother John — his sonorous tenor voice, his hilarious quips about anything and everything under the sun, his captivating mission stories, his beautifully planned prayers, his dedication to interreligious dialogue with the Buddhist monks in Thailand, and his profound reflections on philosophical and theological issues.
John, I laughed and learned so much in your presence and was deeply blessed to have crossed paths with you in mission. Your unique and beautiful light will continue to burn brightly in my heart and the heart of so many others. Peace to you, my friend.
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 2005 – East Timor and Cambodia)
From Karen Bortvedt Estrada:
Since hearing of Brother John’s passing, I went to find photos of the times that our paths crossed in Thailand and at the Interfaith Colloquium in Cambodia — images of Brother John the teacher, the storyteller, the soul that held so much of the world’s pain and led us through daily meditations to learn how to hold our own pain rushed through my mind. But none of these were captured on my camera.
I thought of our conversations over falafel, a Thai dish whose name I have forgotten or in the Society dining room about how he had yet again defied the inevitable. He walked to the edge between this world and the next and kept getting sent back, although he seemed to carry a deep spiritual connection because of these encounters. None of that was captured on my camera either.
Brother John embodied hospitality and accompanied so many of us for a time of rest each year in Thailand. He led us to encounter faiths different from our own, and while he could have very well been the center of it all — with the amazing tales he had to tell — he was just as content to be right outside the frame of the camera, making sure everyone had what they needed. Or often behind the camera, making sure that the rest of us had the photo to remember it so we too could pass on the tales of those encounters as he so beautifully did.
These two photos I managed to find made me smile through my tears because they show Brother John in his element of teacher-host leading us out on an encounter and very quickly turning the camera back onto someone else.
Brother John, you lived life as a guardian angel to so many, may your soul be at peace, while your energy continues to ripple around this world for years to come.
Karen Bortvedt Estrada
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 2013 – Cambodia)
Recruitment and Relationship Manager, Maryknoll Lay Missioners
From Hang Tran:
Brother John always animated our Asia gatherings in Thailand, where participants from the Maryknoll Society, Congregation and lay missioners used to meet for fellowship, fun and more.
His lifelong experience afforded him unique views on mission. Many people fleeing from conflict zones found great compassion and support from him. Brother John could tell a tale or two for several hours, did not mind being goofy, making jokes or (as in this photo) dancing in abandonment at the talent show.
Thanks be to God for your beautiful life and the many gifts you have shared with us. May you rest in peace, dear Brother John!
Maryknoll lay missioner in Cambodia (Class of 2013)
From Patti and Kim LaMothe:
We remember John’s candlelight prayer services at Hua Hin. I especially recall one that included icons from Joan Chittister’s book A Passion for Life. He was an inspiration to us. He was a man of many experiences who was highly spiritual, perhaps a mystic, and always grounded in the good work of daily helping the marginalized in a concrete way.
Patti and Kim LaMothe
Returned Maryknoll lay missioners (Class of 1994 – Cambodia, East Timor)
Please share your own memories of Brother John in the comments section below.
You can read Brother John’s official obituary here.
courtesy of Maryknoll Archives. Click on the photos.