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Filipino brother's life of service filled with gratitude

If I have been able to serve others, it is only because I have received so much, says Brother Karl Gaspar

Filipino brother's life of service filled with gratitude

Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar receives the "Award for Service to the People" given by the Jesuit university Ateneo de Manila on Sept. 26. (Photo by Ditsi Carolino)

Brother Karl Gaspar, Manila
Philippines

November 8, 2017

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"Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true!" I take to heart these words of Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenens.

Half a century ago I was one of around 40 young boys finishing high school who began to dream dreams. Growing up in a small town, coming from a family with a modest background, and pragmatic enough to accept the givens of my existence, my dream was quite modest.

I dreamt of joining the religious life, be a brother and teach high school kids, and emulate the example of teachers I respected, admired, and loved.

I remember one brief moment — just sometime in March 1963 before graduation day — when our class adviser provided us his last advice. This was inside a classroom where one has a full view of Mount Apo as the room had wide windows.

He pointed to this majestic volcano and said these words: "If no major changes take place in this country, the social volcano will erupt. You have a responsibility to make sure you take a part in transforming this society because if the situation remains the same, I tell you, in ten years' time, that volcano will erupt."

I do not know if any one of us in that graduating class — whose minds were caught up in the excitement of this transitory juncture of our young lives — had an inkling what he meant. I did not, as I didn't think he was engaging in metaphors.

I do not know about a classmate who was seated there too, and who 53 years later would become the first Mindanawon president of the republic, how he took those words. But for whatever reason, the words got stuck in my brain and flashed back in my mind less than ten years later, immediately after the unlamented president — who refuses to rest in peace — declared martial law.

I found myself inside the [Philippine Constabulary] barracks having been earlier arrested with other church workers. For indeed, between 1963 and 1972, the country's situation had worsened.

Half a century ago, long before many other incidents took place that got me into trouble with the state, part of that dream of becoming a high school teacher was to make sure I would turn out to be a good one. This meant, making sure I would be able to go to college in a prestigious school.

While it was not such a modest dream, the only choice was to go to the best school in the vicinity. And that would be the Ateneo de Davao College. At first, I thought that was an impossible dream as there were fears that I would not pass the entrance exam nor would my parents afford the high fees. But destiny would help me surmount the obstacles, and by June of 1963, I was in awe as I entered the impressive premises of this college, which actually had very modest facilities when you compare it to what it is today as a university under Father Joel Tabora, SJ.

Two highly esteemed Jesuits who became friends of a lifetime made very strong impressions in those impressionable years, namely: Father (later of Bishop) Federico Escaler, the rector (who years later would be my co-worker, mentor, and surrogate father as we tried to help build the Mindanao-Sulu Local Church into the Vatican II mold).

Then there was Father John Dotterweich, our dean who monitored each one of us through all our college years and who asked me if I had turned anti-American when years later he heard I was joining rallies in Manila shouting "Ibagsak ang Imperialismo" (down with imperialism) among other things "na dapat ibagsak" (that should be overthrown)!

Those of us at the Ateneo in those years were especially lucky: for every semester we had two to three Jesuits teaching us theology, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and life's lessons inside the classroom, so I had the best of them as teachers. Not to romanticize this fact totally, as there were also a few we avoided at all costs. But with the passing of years, one can only be convinced that it was their collective witness that many have brought us to where we are today.

And today, I am here on this stage. And among the faces that memory brings back to me are those of this group of religious men. My heart reaches out to them in deep gratitude. If not for what they taught me — not in words but in terms of their witness — I may not be the person who you think I am who deserve this award.

But from 1963 and half-a-century later, I have been lucky to encounter other faces including those of poor migrants, peasants and fisherfolk, indigenous and Moro peoples across Mindanao.

Immersed among them, I continued to learn and gain knowledge and wisdom that have served me well as a missionary. At one of our general chapters, the theme was "Evangelizare pauperibus misit me a pauperibus evangelizare" (To evangelize the poor but to be also evangelized by the poor).

Truly, journeying with the vulnerable, the wounded, the marginalized, God's anawim opened a whole new world of engagements and commitments. And I have been blessed to have been provided such experiences. If I have been able to serve others, it has been only because I have received so much. Ironically those with the least have so much more to give.

In my advanced age and my present precarious health, I have come to accept that there is only so little I can do to sustain my commitments. Thus, I have zeroed in on only a few advocacies namely to remain in solidarity with our Lumad [Mindanao's tribal people] and Moro brothers and sisters.

It gets to be more difficult especially in these present circumstances of a state whose machineries and institutions militate against the interests of those in the margins and peripheries, and when the gains accumulated through the years of struggles seemed to just evaporate and it is as if we are starting all over again.

But, these days, when the temptation to succumb to despair is just a breath away, I hold on to the memories of memorable moments since half-a-century ago. One of these was when our English 101 professor, Father Justus Weiman, SM, brought a film projector to our classroom at a time when film projectors inside a classroom were a big thing!

He showed us a film on the life and poetry of Robert Frost, and when he spoke the lines of his poem, I got awestruck and the words ring clear in my mind these days. And I end with these words: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep."

Brother Karl Gaspar CSsR is academic dean of St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute in Davao and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. This article was delivered as his acceptance speech during the conferment of the "Parangal sa Paglilingkod ng Sambayanan" or Award for Service to the People given by the Ateneo de Manila University on Sept. 26.

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