One Faith and the many forms of violence

by Fr. Edward Schmidt, SJ

"I wish, when I die, people remember not how great, powerful, or talented I was, but that I served and spoke for the truth, I gave witness to what is right, I was sincere in all my works and actions, in other words, I loved and I followed Christ. Amen."

Richie Fernando's retreat diary,
January 3, 1996

Richie Fernando, SJ

Richard Fernando, SJ
1970 --1996

Richie Fernando was a long way from home. He was a Filipino Jesuit in Buddhist Cambodia. He was educated and full of promise in a camp where refugees maimed by bullets and land mines and scarred by hunger and disease fought for hope. He loved life in a land where life was hard and death nearby.

Richie went to Cambodia in May 1995 as part of his Jesuit training. He had entered the Society in 1990 and finished the novitiate and collegiate studies. Before going on to theology studies and ordination, he was sent to work at Banteay Prieb, a Jesuit technical school for the handicapped not far from Phnom Penh. Banteay Prieb describes itself as a "place that enables the disabled to tell their own stories, to gather strength and hope from being with one another, and to learn a new skill that enhances a sense of dignity and worth." Here people disabled by landmines, polio, and accidents learn skills that allow them to earn a living. Banteay Prieb means "the Center of the Dove."

When Richie arrived, his devotion to the students quickly won their trust. He began learning their Khmer language and came to appreciate their religious traditions. And he loved to share their stories, stories of survival during Pol Pot's genocidal regime, stories of the devastation of their society through poverty, displacement, and the nine million landmines that still plague their land.

One of these survivors is Sarom. Already an orphan, at 16 Sarom became a soldier; two years later he was maimed by a landmine. Sarom finished his courses at Banteay Prieb and wanted to stay on there, but school authorities found him disruptive and asked him to leave. Richie Fernando mentioned Sarom in a letter to his friends in the Philippines, saying that although Sarom was "tricky" he still had a place in Richie's heart.

On October 17, 1996, Sarom came to the school for a meeting. Angered, he suddenly he reached into a bag he was carrying, pulled out a grenade, and began to move towards a classroom full of students; the windows of the room were barred, leaving the students no escape. Richie Fernando came up behind Sarom and grabbed him.

"Let me go, teacher; I do not want to kill you," Sarom pleaded. But he dropped his grenade, and it fell behind him and Richie. In a flash Richie Fernando was dead, falling over with Sarom still grasped in his arms, protecting him from the violence he had made.

Only four days before his death Richie had written a long letter to his Jesuit friend Totet Banaynal. "I know where my heart is," he wrote; "It is with Jesus Christ, who gave his all for the poor, the sick, the orphan ...I am confident that God never forgets his people: our disabled brothers and sisters. And I am glad that God has been using me to make sure that our brothers and sisters know this fact. I am convinced that this is my vocation."

Three days after Richie's death, his shocked family and friends in the Philippines celebrated his funeral. At the same time, his shocked Cambodian friends carried an urn containing cloths soaked in his blood to a Buddhist funeral mound. In their shock they mourned; and in their mourning they gave thanks for Richie, the man they knew and loved, their son, their brother, their teacher, their friend.

Shocked by what he had caused, Sarom sat in his jail cell and mourned too. In March 1997, Mr. and Mrs. Fernando wrote to Cambodia's King Sihanouk, asking for pardon for Sarom; somehow, someone had to stop the violence. Sarom had not wanted to kill Richie. "Richie ate rice with me," he said; "he was my friend."

Thomas Anchanikal, SJ

Thomas Anchanikal, SJ
1951 -- 1997

Had I been there --
Would I have dared --
Dare die in his stead,
As Thomas did, bowing his head
On a night without a star,
In the cruel fields of Bihar...?

from "Had I Been There,"
a poem in honor of A.T. Thomas,
by Pradip Sen

Thomas Anchanikal, known as A.T. Thomas, was back home in Hazaribag, in Bihar State, India. He was back among the dalits, the poor and illiterate oppressed. They knew him as their teacher, their advocate. He made their cause his own.

As a young Jesuit in the 1970s, A. T. had heard the cry of the poor and his personal call to live and work among them. He was a practical man who could fix a TV antenna or a car's engine. He was a compassionate man who drove the sick to the hospital and sat by the dying. And he was a visionary man who heard the people's stories of oppression and recognized the power latent in their talents and determination.

A.T. and his fellow Jesuits recognized the great need of the dalits for education. Even children had to work all day to help support their families, so normal schooling was beyond them. A.T. and the others gradually developed a network of night schools around Hazaribag. Gathering for school, people began to share their other concerns, and the whole range of social issues and needs came to the fore. A.T. became involved in every aspect of the people's lives.

After two decades of nonstop labor, in 1996 A.T. went to Manila to work on a master's degree in sociology so he could return and serve the people better. In October 1997 he was back in India doing research for his degree, back among the lowest of India's social classes, the people without a caste, the very poor people of God whom he loved.

Some years earlier A.T. had been involved in a legal dispute. Dalits in a village near Hazaribag had lost a parcel of land that they cultivated to a group from a higher caste. They went to court and, to everyone's surprise, won their case. The offending parties went to jail but never forgot who had caused them to lose face and their freedom.

On October 24, 1997, A.T. went to the village of Sirka, where he found some people dressed in police uniforms beating one of the villagers. As he started to investigate the violence, one of the would-be police recognized him and said, "This is the man who sent me to jail."

The men dressed as police were in fact local insurgents who extorted money from the villagers. They surrounded A.T. and led him away at gunpoint. The villagers protested, "He is a good man; let him go." But A.T. disappeared into the night.

"There was never any doubt as to where A.T.'s sympathies lay," writes his fellow Jesuit Kevin Cronin. "As he had perceived Jesus to have been, A.T. felt himself called to be on the side of the poor, the victims of injustice in whatever form." A.T. became the latest victim of violent injustice.

For two days, as authorities waited for the expected ransom demand, rumors began to circulate that A.T. had been beaten and killed. On October 27, his battered and decapitated body was found in a river bed.

That evening, the body was brought to St. Xavier's in Hazaribag and placed into a coffin. The next day friends and relatives, religious sisters to whom he had ministered, and crowds of his beloved untouchables gathered for the Church's liturgy to honor A.T.'s memory and draw strength from his sacrifice.

"This father just cannot abide injustice anywhere," people had said of him. "If he sees injustice anywhere, he will fight." Injustice led A.T. to his violent death. But in facing this injustice, A.T. Thomas had already found life.

Tom Gafney, SJ

Thomas Gafney, SJ
1932 -- 1997

"With his innate goodness, his compassion for the victims of our civilization, his deep trust in the essential goodness of every human being, and his profound faith in the Lord, he became a beacon of hope to hundreds of young people who found shelter under his care."

from a letter of Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior general of the Society of Jesus, about Thomas Gafney

Thomas Gafney was in Kathmandu, Nepal, his adopted home since 1967. His Jesuit community was St. Xavier's school, but he lived nearby in a bungalow, the administrative center for an array of programs that he directed. Working for the lost and the abandoned, there he was really at home.

Tom was born and grew up in Cleveland and entered the Jesuit order in 1952. After finishing philosophy studies in 1957, he went to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he worked for three years. After completing his Jesuit training in India in 1967, he returned to Kathmandu as a high school administrator, serving as rector at St. Xavier's. While rector at St. Xavier's Tom was also the local director of social services.

In 1971, recognizing the need to do something for the growing number of homeless boys, he began the St. Xavier's Social Centre. Starting with a home for nine boys rescued from life on the streets, he provided education, security, and love. The nine quickly grew to ninety-three, and the ministry grew to a wide range of social services. The social center became Tom Gafney's full-time job in 1976.

The poor of Kathmandu needed medical attention; Tom Gafney started a free clinic. Disabled children felt isolated; Tom brought them to Special Olympics in Nepal and beyond. Young blind boys needed some hope for the future; Tom arranged for their training and employment in weaving the famous Nepali carpets. AIDS arrived in Nepal; Tom began treatment and support.

When drugs began to ravage the young people of Nepal, Tom Gafney went into action. He cared for the victims, starting treatment and rehab programs. As he listened to their stories, he came to know the drug trade and the network of corruption it entailed. And he began to speak bluntly about it and to write bluntly in local newspapers.

On December 13, 1997, after dinner with other Jesuits, Tom Gafney said he had an appointment and left the community at about 8:45 p.m. He drove his old motorcycle the short trip to his bungalow, but what happened after that remains unknown.

The next morning a worker found Tom's door unlocked. His body lay in bed, covered with blood. His throat had been cut, perhaps with a traditional Nepali khurkuri, a curved knife, which police found clean nearby. Some money that was to pay the workers had been taken, but there were no signs of forced entry or of struggle.

The police interrogated a dozen people for the murder but released them; they have made no progress in solving the murder. Observers speculate that Tom Gafney was killed for his attempts to address the drug trade. With big money involved, people with influence had their business to protect, and he was clearly a threat to them. The international edition of Newsweek ran the headline, "I knew too much."

After the wake at St. Xavier's School and the funeral mass at Assumption Church in Kathmandu, Tom Gafney's body was carried on a flatbed truck to the banks of the Bagmati River. Crowds followed on motorcycles and in school buses. Here he was cremated, and the ashes were thrown into the river, which flows underground to the Ganges, the sacred river of India. And Tom's Christian and Hindu friends mourned their loss.

Tom Gafney looked at the people of Nepal and saw God's people. He gave himself to them, to the neediest most of all. Immersed in poverty, disease, and corruption, Tom saw opportunity and God's blessings. "Ours are truly innumerable," he wrote; "and we pray that our intercessions to God for you...will let you share equally." That vision takes faith.

Tom Gafney was 65 when he died. Through the 28 years he called Nepal home, he saw the needs of the people and let his faith serve those needs. And in the quiet of night he died at the hand of an assassin who will never be known.

A. T. Thomas was 46 when he died. From his early Jesuit years he faced the raw poverty of the lowest classes in India, his homeland, and the injustice that feeds that poverty; driven to care, he gave these people hope. And at the end of a long day he faced injustice once more, and men who hated him led him away and took his life.

Richie Fernando was 26 when he died. Still learning the implications of the Jesuit ideals he had embraced, he left the Philippines for Cambodia; here among the maimed and broken and tossed aside, he learned a new language, lived a new culture, made a new home, and his new friends felt his love for them. One bright morning, he died at the hands of one who called him friend.

The earliest heroes in the Church were those who shed their blood for their faith: "Worship the emperor or we kill you!" "Deny this Jesus or die!" But that kind of witness has mostly faded away. Modern times have given birth to another witness to faith, the one whose commitment leads into danger, into no-exit conflict with forces that oppress and exploit and kill.

Richie Fernando, A.T. Thomas, and Tom Gafney were not the first of these modern martyrs, nor are they the last. Nor is the call to witness limited to Cambodia, India, or Nepal. Zaire, El Salvador, Uganda, and many other places have modern martyrs of their own. Violent injustice still demands faith, and people of faith respond. They still suffer for their response and sometimes die for it. And the families and friends who honor their memory still mourn their loss, and wonder why, and say thanks.

Author Fr. Edward Schmidt, SJ, is Company's business manager.

Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, [email protected] Copyright(c) Company Magazine 1998. Created: 10/15/98 Updated: 10/17/98