Thursday, August 11, 2005

[Essay] A Man for All Seasons

When I was in high school, I was no stranger to outreach programs. At least in name. A number of my more popular batchmates were busy tutoring public school children during their spare time, while all I did was hang out at their org room, listening to their tales of this and that experience. To be honest, I didn’t find teaching kids appealing at the time. I was happy for my batchmates though, and one of the things I envied was their camaraderie. And so it was from them that I encountered the organization called ERDA (Educational Research and Development Assistance), which was responsible for one of the more popular outreach programs in our school.

Little did I know that six years later, I would meet the man responsible for such a prolific and altruistic venture, Fr. Pierre Trizt S.J.. Born at the borders of France and Germany, Fr. Tritz would eventually became a citizen of the Philippines in 1972 after switching allegiances between France and Germany several times. He originally enrolled in a school that gave its students a choice of which order to graduate from, and he chose the Jesuits, mainly because he wanted to go to China. He was inspired to do so after reading a book that dealt with the life of Matteo Ricci, one of the four original Jesuits who managed to penetrate China and befriended the emperor.

Life in China was everything Fr. Tritz imagined and more. In the span of a few months, he learned the language and began what would be his calling in life. He could not yet write in Chinese, but could read and understand the spoken word. Armed with those tools, he began teaching, and would set the pattern for his life. His vocation though was halted with the attack of the Japanese. It was a two-year head start before World War 2 began in Europe, and so the Japanese did not harm the Jesuits for they did not want to antagonize the French at this time. Fr. Pierre relocated to the Philippines, hoping to return to China one day.

When the war was over, China had changed and adopted a communist policy. Fr. Tritz remained in the Philippines, and eventually gained his citizenship during the Marcos era. During his stay here, he continued what he did in China: that is to teach and teach and teach. He was teaching at three universities, but as the years passed by, he had to give up one of them, especially in light of his health.

It was a book that originally inspired Fr. Tritz to pursue the life of a Jesuit in China. It would be another book that would inspire him to set up the foundation that is now known as ERDA. Receiving a copy of a digest given to guidance counselors, Fr. Tritz was shocked to find out that millions of children were uneducated and living in poverty. The advantage of the rich, he cited, was that they had kindergarten. The poor enters school at grade one, knowing nothing. Worse, few actually pay tuition or could afford to. All they have is whatever the government offers them.

Fr. Tritz was supported by the government and given permission to set up a 5-year high school. This high school taught a variety of skills, and one of the more important programs it had was on-the-job training. Once the students graduated, they had the skills necessary to find employment. And so began ERDA, which would later transform into a huge enterprise it is now, drawing aid from various people and volunteers.

When I was sitting in Fr. Tritz’s office, he had a photo of one of the students who were benefiting from ERDA. The student also gave a hand-written letter to Fr. Tritz, which he showed to me. Near his office were several stacks of boxes, each containing school supplies to be delivered to various parts of the nation. It would seem ERDA is successful in its goals, but Fr. Tritz remembers his roots. He tells me of various benefactors, such as Mr. Yuchengco, a wealthy but amiable man who supports and funds ERDA.

I leave the ERDA building, happy on one hand because of all Fr. Tritz has managed to accomplish, but disappointed as well considering how many Filipinos are still stricken by poverty and a lack of good education. As I rub off the shit I stepped outside ERDA’s gates, the one thing I am certain is Fr. Tritz’s sincerity. I mean a Jesuit could have been living in a more comfortable abode, yet the building in which ERDA resides is at the heart of the people they are trying to help. In front of me was a street littered with manure, dirt, and various street folk. The building itself, while sturdy, was unassuming, and could easily be mistaken for an abandoned warehouse.

Others might see outreach programs as a diversion, or perhaps a duty one needs to perform once in awhile, akin to attending Sunday mass. But here was Fr. Tritz, in his ninth decade, continuing an endeavor that might never be finished in his lifetime. For the man who’s survived the World War, migrated to a country half a continent away, and set up an altruistic foundation, he’s still working at it. I think I’ve caught a glimpse of what it is to espouse the Jesuit belief of magis, to strive for excellence, to strive for more.

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