Editor’s note: This is the first story in a new Sudbury.com monthly series called ‘Lifestory’, in which we pay tribute to lives well-lived of Sudburians who have recently passed on. If you would like to submit the name of a person to be featured in Lifestory, please email [email protected] and tell us your story.
It can be almost impossible to sum a person’s life into a series of words. Their experiences, their personalities, all the things that make up the complexity of a human being cannot be merely summarized by even the most well-chosen words.
But perhaps, it is possible to summarize a person by the word that continues to come up whenever their name is spoken, whenever memories bring a smile to one’s face, or after they have gone, a tear to one’s eye.
In the case of John Sahadat, the word is ‘awe’.
John Sahadat arrived in Sudbury in 1964, travelling from his home in Trinidad to study at Huntington University. He went on to graduate with a degree in philosophy and religious studies, and after travelling to India and the United Kingdom, returned to teach the same at the University of Sudbury for more than 40 years. Sahadat volunteered at the Sudbury Regional Hospital as part of the pastoral team and at Health Sciences North with Mended Hearts until 2016, in addition to serving on the University’s Board of Regents and establishing the Debate Society, Culture Night and Debate Night for the students in residence, where he lived when he first began teaching, before he met his wife. But these sentences do not convey much more than how Sahadat spent his days.
For the true nature of Sahadat, the awe of him is clear in the way his wife, Lorraine Sahadat, describes her husband. She speaks of him as though he were born of answered prayers from faithful believers. They met when Lorraine, a teacher herself, enrolled in 1970 at the University of Sudbury’s Religion class, taught by John. They married after a chance meeting many years later, in 1987.
She said not only was she in awe of his vast knowledge and amazing memory, but his dedication to his students.
Sahadat said her husband was the ideal teacher. “I noticed that as soon as he entered the classroom, the students would all take their seats and give him their full attention. You could hear a pin drop when he delivered his lectures.”
Sahadat said her husband was dedicated to his students, and would never deprive students of his time, his knowledge or his talents.
Sahadat said she could fill books with the letters her husband received from students. In her eulogy to her beloved husband, she spoke of a letter John received from a student, one that stood out to her as she went through her husband’s papers after his death. The student was feeling as though he was simply ‘another boy in the world’. In the letter, the student wrote he had been feeling lost, but that after hearing John Sahadat’s annual speech to open the University of Sudbury’s school year, he went from feeling like ‘a screw in a machine’ to ‘the most important screw.’
The student pointed to one line in particular. “Yes, you are nothing more than a drop of water in the ocean. But the ocean is composed of drops of water.”
John Sahadat saw himself as only a drop of water in a vast ocean. While that is true, his drop of water satiated the thirst of thousands of students who graced his lessons, and each person who encountered him in life.
One such person is Melchior Mbonimpa, an acclaimed novelist and University of Sudbury colleague of Sahadat’s for 30 years. Except Mbonimpa would never describe himself as a colleague, an equal, or even, a friend. Rather, Mbonimpa feels all these titles do not clearly express the reverence he had for the man he calls his mentor, his elder, and his “Mzee”.
Mzee is a Swahili word, one that is used with reverence. It was commonly used as a way to show honour and respect to Nelson Mandela; his followers would refer to him as “Mzee Mandela.” Directly translated to English, it means ‘old.’ But once again, Mbonimpa finds the English language lacking in its ability to convey meaning. ‘Old’ means you have gained wisdom that is not offered to all; you can see the world in a way young eyes never will.
It is this aspect of Sahadat’s personality that leaves Mbonimpa in awe. The ability to learn from life, to be burdened by it, and still find the time to lessen the burden of others, whether through advice, wisdom, or simply a listening ear. Mbonipa said Sahadat’s door was never closed. From students in need of guidance, to members of the University senate looking for answers to procedural questions, Sahadat’s experience was offered to all.
“You could see how many people were going in and sitting down and chatting for a long time,” said Mbonimpa. “I thought, he’s like a priest when you go into the confessional, all these people telling their stories to him, and I thought ‘he can’t have time for that,’ but also, that people’s secrets can be so heavy.”
Mbonimpa said Sahadat would take that burden, those secrets, problems and torment, and bear it, discreetly, while still offering a shoulder for those who need it. The wisdom of Mzee.
Mbonimpa calls him the peacemaker, the man who would help you find your way when you are in conflict with someone else. To Sahadat’s wife Lorraine, the word is “mender.” She said he never tried to force his opinions or thoughts. He was one to “let go and let God,” said Sahadat, “he would sow the seed and let the Lord do the harvesting.”
John Sahadat was a man of faith not just in his pursuit of wisdom and what he saw as the love of God, but also, in understanding the world religions so he may teach them to his students. Mbonimpa said Sahadat was committed to an open and welcoming mind, as well as heart.
“He was very open because If you are not open, you cannot teach what he was teaching,” said Mbonimpa. “You cannot teach Hinduism without liking it. You can't make it understood and liked by the students, if you don't like it, if you are not open to it.”
Mbonimpa said his reverence for each religion would have students questioning Sahadat’s belief system. “If he is teaching you Hinduism, you would think, ‘is he Hindu’?”
Though the two never had children of their own, Lorraine Sahadat believes it was because her God gave her and her husband “thousands of students and hundreds of nieces and nephews.”
Sadly, Lorraine herself now faces terminal illness, and when John was confined to his bed in the last days of his life, he still found the strength to pray for her as she went through he treatment. Now that he is gone, Sahadat hopes to reunite with her husband in their beloved kingdom of God, but also believes the time she has been given is due to her husband’s prayers.
And while awe is the word that follows the followers of John Sahadat, those who would heed his words or simply wish to be in his presence for the peaceful and calming effect he had on others, Sahadat would surely have very few words to describe his own life. In fact, probably only three words, ones that he held dear to him throughout his life.
He would murmur them, hold the words in his hands to give to others, or simply whisper them into his own heart. Those immortal words are: “thank you Lord.”
John Sahadat died on May 3 at the age of 85, but due to the pandemic, his family honours his life now that it is safe to do so.
Would like to submit the name of a person to be featured in an upcoming Lifestory? Please email [email protected] and tell us your story.