John Calvi was born in 1952 and raised on his grandmother’s farm in Connecticut. Both sides of this family were Italian immigrants and both John’s parents learned English as a second language. He was raised informally Catholic but discovered Quakers when he was 16 at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. He felt immediately at home and stayed.
At age18 John was granted Conscientious Objector status after his two older brothers had already engaged in the American war in Vietnam. Working at Yale University on a loading dock awaiting to see if a high draft number would excuse him from alternative service work at Yale, John met his first boyfriend when he was 18.
A high draft number excused him from further obligations and John became an assistant Montessori teacher in Greenwich, Conn. working with three to six year olds. He received certification and taught in Montessori schools in Ohio and Vermont for eight years. While he lacked a college degree and was very learning disabled himself, John’s classroom was the preferred placement by parents in his last school in Brattleboro, Vermont.
In the late 1970’s, John began to write songs and perform on guitar, banjo, and dulcimer at gay coffeehouses. John sent a song backstage to Meg Christian in 1981. Later that year, “The Ones Who Aren’t Here” was performed and recorded by Meg at Carnegie Hall and became a hit tune for her. It was later recorded by Suede on her first album, “Easily Suede”. This has become a song used at memorials and weddings and annual AIDS events. John has performed at Gay Pride rallies in Boston, Cincinnati, and Burlington. Pete Seeger hearing him on stage at a benefit concert for Killooleet summer camp told John – “Your songs are really good!” While John no longer performs, there is some movement to have his 1985 Oberlin concert prepared for CD release.
In the fall of 1982 John began his certification in massage therapy at the Boulder School of Massage in Colorado. Soon after he began school a number of women rape survivors sought John’s help in recovery. While he found he could transfer what he knew about calm and trust in working with three year olds, he also discovered that his hands became extremely warm and deep relaxation in clients happened almost immediately using energy work at the start of the massage session, a simply laying on of hands. It would be a year of this happening again and again before John suspected a spiritual gift of releasing physical and emotional pain following trauma. He was slow to understand and had no intention of seeking work in a spiritual frame.
In the fall of 1983, while still in massage school, John contacted the Colorado Department of Health and offered to do massage on people with AIDS regardless of whether they could pay. There were only three people in the state with AIDS at the time, but numbers grew swiftly. This was before the name AIDS and before causes and transmission were understood. It was in this context, while still in massage school, that John began to understand that his gift as a healer was the release of pain and did not extend to the change of tissue or disease status.
Following massage school graduation, John applied for three massage jobs at spas and gyms. Because his work in the AIDS epidemic was known, no one would hire him.
While he had been washing dozens of muffin pans at a friend's bakery in the midnight shift for food and rent money, the AIDS work became too intense and exhausting to continue at the bakery. In the summer of 1984 John wrote his first fundraising letter asking 100 friends to pay him for his AIDS work. This began his tradition of living mainly on gifts to offer help to the so many who are without resources, an continuing aspect of his life’s work.
At the newly founded AIDS group and the massage school, John began to teach about healing from trauma – including massage, energy work, and psychosocial dynamics and the increasingly important task of avoiding burnout in doing crisis work.
Continuing to work with rape survivors and people with AIDS, John remained in Boulder until spring of 1985 when he began to receive invitations to teach about AIDS, massage and energy work for trauma, and avoiding burnout. He returned to Vermont and worked with AIDS organizations in Vermont and New York. He taught AIDS 101 among Quakers beginning in 1985 and later in prisons in upstate New York .
In 1986 John met Marshall Brewer at a gay swimming hole in southeastern Vermont. In a very short while they decided they had to spend the rest of their lives together. Marshall had recently finished his first master’s degree and found work in Los Angeles near his hometown of Claremont, California. John moved there in 1987 and spent a year writing down the stories of his work.
John was recognized as a Released Friend from Putney Meeting for 15 years from 1987 to 2002. This is a Quaker tradition to support ministry in the world and help the person with guidance and practical resources.
They moved to Washington D.C. in 1988. Living for a time with John’s dear friend and co-conspirator, John Meyer, John began to teach avoiding burnout via John Meyer’s work with the Whitman-Walker Clinic and working with people with AIDS at homes and six area hospitals.
As the medicines for AIDS were ineffective and death rates were high, AIDS work in the 80’s was largely hospice work. John sought additional work where he thought he might be able to help people live, which he hoped would bring him some relief personally. And so began his work with torture refugees. Washington was filled with thousands of Central American’s fleeing from the American wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras.
John and Marshall were married under the care of John’s Quaker meeting in Putney, Vermont, on August 26, 1989 where almost 200 people attended a huge celebration. They returned to live in Vermont a year later where they settled into a small house in the woods on a landtrust where simple living with low environmental impact was the foundation for the community.
In the spring of 1990, John took some rest and writing time at Pendle Hill. This was the beginning of a more discipline way to maintain his best energies for the long haul. It was also the beginning of collecting of journals and speeches for a book, a long held dream.
John gave the closing plenary at Friends General Conference in July 1990 to about 1,800 in Northfield, Minnesota. The recording of this became popular among Friends along with articles in Friends Journal magazine and established him as a known Quaker healer working in various populations from ritual abuse to torture survivors. His invitations to teach and work among Friends grew. His travels included work with Friends meetings and organizations across the US, Canada, Mexico and an international conference on torture in Costa Rica.
In 2005, John founded The Quaker Initiative to End Torture- QUIT! with five other Quaker friends. This organization gathers Friends together in conferences to learn about the history, policy, and practice of American torture and opposing it. Media, publications, education, protest, and the call for change is on going. In 2011, John’s plenary on American torture at Friends General Conference Gathering revealed to many the unwelcome news that American torture continues and Friends are needed in this long term work as they were for abolition, women’s suffrage, and opposing wars since the 1600’s. He continues as the founding convener of QUIT!
John celebrated his 25th year in the work in 2008 with a year long sabbatical. In 2011 Shelly Angel began editing John’s writings, which culminated in his first book – The Dance Between Hope & Fear – released in June of 2013. The book was well received by reviewers from Quaker Theology, Western Friend, Friends Journal, Friend General Conference Book Store, and Amazon. A second book in is the works and expected in 2015.
Settled with a loving marriage in Putney, Vermont, John has continued a life’s work of teaching and healing with individuals and groups while working by invitation and living primarily on gifts. John teaches each year at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania, Powell House in New York, various Yearly Meetings, and Friends General Conference Summer Gatherings, among other places. Now 32 years in the work as of this writing, John reaches more people each year in his life work of helping to heal from trauma.
(This biographical statement written by John Calvi and Shelly Angel.)
Biography Date: November, 2014