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Archive for February, 2011

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Go Forth and Teach

Go Forth and Teach

This past week I was drawn back in reflection with my assistant to pen the following words. It’s been a long time since I have written for the Huntington audience. I moved to St. Louis, Missouri more than two months ago and I have only been in contact with my home community through Facebook. However, this past week drew me back to my college home because a dear friend of mine, well known to the community, passed away. Today I honor the memory of Father Bert Valdez.

The first time I experienced Father Bert was at the college’s Newman Center. It was in his first homily in front of about 60 students that Father Bert and I not just physically met, but met in a very intellectual and spiritual manner. I forget what the readings were for that first Sunday encounter, but I do remember Father Bert beginning his homily by pulling a chair from the front row (the chair being beside me) and briskly sitting down. We couldn’t believe it. We looked at each other in amazement. This was unorthodox! It was outside our understanding, and what happened further pushed us even more outside of our comfort zone. Upon reading his highlighted text in the mass for a second time, he looked up (from sitting) and said, “What do you think this means?” And again we stuttered, not quite sure if we were supposed to answer. He shook us to the core.

But, you see, that’s what Father Bert did…and he did it best. That’s because he calls us into question. Notice I say “us,” because for Father Bert all spiritual questions came down to being human. When explaining what Heaven was to a bunch of kindergartners, he at first asked “Where do you think heaven is?” and they all pointed up. He said, “No…Heaven isn’t up. Heaven is all around us.” He lifted his arms and pointed his finger and started spinning like a dreidel in the middle of the room, leaving a life long impression on these kindergartners and teaching them a lesson they would never forget. Heaven isn’t some distant place. Heaven is a place, a thing, almost a being that we interact with every day. I am sure Father Bert had told that story of those children and his conception of Heaven a thousand times before he met me, but it left an impression nevertheless that will last my entire life.

Bert Valdez, in some ways, was unapproachable. Many times I heard students complain that he was hard to follow. But, you see, with Father Bert you got the full complexity of what he was trying to understand as he taught it to you. He believed in the teachable moment, long before Obama spoke of it, and he understood that teaching was as much about learning for the teacher as it was for the student. There are some times and some places where even the most gifted teacher is not understood by his audience. For Bert Valdez, who lived with the passion of an artist, through the rhythm and the riddle of the Scripture, the goal was always to teach. Numerous times he brought up his experiences teaching high school. When I talked to him just before he died, Father Bert could not stop talking about the Newman Center and how he thought of it often. Even with his last breath, his goal was to teach. When I told him that I would miss him not only as a priest but also as a friend beyond the priesthood, he said “I’m always telling people that I was a man before I was a priest.” Those are some of the last words I would ever hear come from the mouth of one of my greatest teachers. He was fond of saying, “All stories are true. Some really happened.”

Father Bert and I didn’t always see eye to eye. We debated and I stubbornly rejected and then accepted, and he did the same. The gift of a good teacher infuses you with not just the knowledge that he or she is passing, but infuses you with a piece of them. It’s a sort of transference of spirit The very thing that I imagine happening during the mass, a truly gifted teacher can call out and call upon at any time. Bert Valdez gave to me in our dialogue a piece of him, and I will carry that for the rest of my life, passing it on to whomever I can leave a legacy to. For what it’s worth, all stories are true, and some of them really happened.

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