Pomegranate Center

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In Memory of James Parks Morton 1930 – 2020

by Milenko Matanovič

February 8, 2020

James Parks Morton died in early January 2020 at his home in Manhattan before the U.S. outbreak of COVID-19. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease. He was 89.

I first met Dean Jim Morton in 1979 at an advisory meeting of the Windstar Foundation, the initiative of folk singer John Denver. Good fortune allowed us to be neighbors for that weekend. I was intrigued with his work at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York where he earned the nickname Green Dean for his environmental passion. He felt that taking care of nature was spiritual work. He invited me to consult with one of the cathedral’s programs, and we became friends. He served on the Pomegranate Center’s Advisory Board, and, in spite of my religious ambivalence, always cheered me on. Jim became my mentor. His heart was big and inclusive. He had the same attitude speaking with the Secretary of State Cirus Vance or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as he exhibited with chefs and waiters of neighboring restaurants. To him they were all equal members of the community. This lesson alone powerfully and forever shaped my own work. During his tenure, he transformed the cathedral into a vibrant center for the arts, the homeless, circus performers, endangered animals, and interfaith engagement. He invited people from all faiths and professions to “preach” from the pulpit. I was one of them in 1987, on my 40th birthday.

During the 1983 interview for my book Lightworks, I asked him about his views and ideas:

I see the cathedral ringed with restaurants, theaters, and shops – all places of human interchange. I can see a market right in front that is full of stuff that is handmade, and full of people that are selling, and talking, and coming into communion with each other by way of their artifacts – songs, dramas, poetry, quiches, pastries, goulashes, wines, cheeses, printed fabrics, books, pots, furniture – the things that create health because people care for each other.

He did not like supermarkets where nine hundred people push along little carts and only ten people are working.” In his vision there would be “a hundred people buying and a hundred people selling.” He cared for the communion, not stuff.

Jim had a special soft place in his heart for artisans. He believed that in the earlier periods of history when:

objects that surround life – clothing, food, decorations, buildings, or furniture – were crafted in certain, given ways, and the manner of performing any craft had to be learned in such a way as to develop unselfconscious artisans rather than self-conscious artists. What makes us artists is what we do and how we do. The artist is required in heaven. The creative side makes us most human – we don’t just take what is given, but we goose it up a bit, we make it more beautiful, more communicative. The more human we become, the more artistic we become. The artist is the perfect human.

My work with Pomegranate Center was guided by Jim’s ideas. We became friends because, for Jim, “the artist and the priest are very close together.”

Thank you, Jim, for your big heart and great work.

Here is his NYTimes obituary