by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, Bishop of Kalookan*
He could have been named Jesus, this son of a carpenter; but they named him Joel instead. He had finished neither grade school nor high school but he is now a licensed social worker, an outreach coordinator, a writer, a lay Eucharistic Minister, a volunteer in media apostolate, an environmental activist, and a budding bible expert. How did he do it?
This is the story of a boy who got expelled from school when he was in grade five because he had hurt a classmate. During that time, there was no way he could explain that he was being bullied. His violent reaction which got the bully hurt really badly, was actually an outburst from an accumulation of suppressed anger towards the bully who, he would later recall in a therapy session, had constantly harassed him in school. When the principal demanded an explanation for his violent behavior, he just kept quiet. He had been made fun of and ridiculed too often even by teachers, he had lost trust in anyone connected in any way to the school. He kept his mouth shut even when it was his own mother who demanded an explanation, so the principal approved his expulsion, making it next-to-impossible for him to get admitted ever again in school. In short, he had been blacklisted. His mother apologized to the teacher and the bully's parents, but had enough good sense to seek their help in having the boy homeschooled instead. The teachers provided him all the books that he needed, progressively, all the way to high school. With some tutoring from his mother, Joel used his textbooks and sustained his home schooling. When he reached 18, his mother enrolled him in ALS (alternative learning system) so that he could prepare himself for a qualifying test that would determine if he could tackle college or not. Not only did he obtain an elementary diploma; he qualified for a high school diploma as well.
After his success in ALS, Joel would have been happy enough to get some practical courses from TESDA, like bartending. Because he had a lot of spare time, he applied to do volunteer work at Holy Rosary Parish Pastoral Care Office. His mother tailed him at the start. If we were having a group planning until late in the evening, after the meeting his mother would be there, seated at the staircase, her head bowed on arms crossed over her knees, perhaps to pray, or perhaps to get some sleep while waiting patiently for her son. Sometimes she would approach me after Mass to ask how her son was doing in his volunteer work in the parish. At another time, after a late meeting, I asked her why she had to wait for her son until late. She explained to me that her son was a good boy but had had a record of turning violent when bullied, so she wanted to make sure that she'd be there for him if anything went wrong somehow with his newfound company as a volunteer in the parish. I assured her that I'd make sure myself he would not be bullied while under my watch in the parish. From then on, she stopped tailing him. All I did was to tell the volunteers to be a little careful, not to say or do things that might be misconstrued by this boy as a form of ridicule. He was like a turtle whose head was hiding under the shell of his huge physique, carefully peering from inside if it was safe to stick his neck out. When he found out that no one was there to do him any harm, he became more comfortable. I referred him to one of our volunteers, a young ex-seminarian who was doing his PhD in Psychology at De la Salle University, for therapy sessions to help him build his social skills. Because he was a voracious learner, he picked up lessons very fast.
Joel collecting palm tree seeds and planting at Sapang Balen.
When we launched the environmental advocacy campaign in the parish, he was my most consistent companion. He went down with me to the Sapang Balen, carrying a huge trash bag, to help rid the said waterway of all sorts of trash from the creek: used sanitary napkins, baby diapers, plastic sachets, and all sorts of no biodegradable trash without any hint at all of squeamishness. He even monitored for me the liquid emissions of the local slaughterhouse and a hotdog factory, which we submitted for testing as to the presence of harmful microorganisms like coliform and hazardous chemicals. Thanks to him we succeeded in having both establishments pressured to put up proper wastewater treatment facilities.
I wasn't surprised at all when he applied for a scholarship grant for college at our diocesan social action center, he asked to be enrolled for a BS degree in social work. Why social work? He said he was sure there were many kids out there who might not have been as lucky as he, and he could pay forward his blessings by helping them. He also discovered he could use his talent in digital technology for our media apostolate, both in the parish liturgical media and our diocesan production of a weekly talk show on the Sunday Gospel. He handled the camera but always had with him a notebook to note down things he was learning while we discussed the Gospels in the set. Whenever we tried to recall an episode, he always came in handy; he was our walking encyclopedia.
Joel bought every version of the bible available and compared them.
At my monthly Q&A bible study, I knew most of the questions that were submitted were from him. He literally sat at my feet like a disciple to a rabbi, and ate up the pages of Scriptures like he was the prophet Ezekiel. Since I noticed this boy's special gifts, I gave him another gift: an audio bible. He had asked me before how it came about that I could rattle off lines from the bible from rote memory. I told him my secret: the audio bible. I told him I soaked in the Bible not just by reading but by constant hearing. On my way to a talk, such as in Tagaytay or Manila, or Baguio, I'd choose specific biblical books to play. Sometimes I'd play Ecclesiastes, or Luke, or Revelations over and over again, until the words have sunk into my subconscious, i could almost recite them from chapter to chapter. The lines would come in handy when I give recollections or facilitate retreats. How did I know that this boy would really take to heart everything that I had suggested? Not only did he soak in the Scriptures, when he started to earn and spare some spending money for himself, he bought every version of the bible available and compared them assiduously like my own professors in textual critical exegesis did when I sat at their feet when I did my doctorate in Louvain, Belgium.
Joel in Men in Light production.
Once, I challenged the LGU, the NGOs, the Church mandated organizations, and just anyone of good will who might be interested in transforming together the whole stretch of the vacated PNR lot in Angeles into a public park and garden. It had become an eyesore because of the trash and concrete debris being dumped in it by mindless citizens, and a hub for drug addicts. Already a year or two befor this dream became a reality, Joel started collecting for me seeds of all sorts of palm trees for our nursery where our volunteers managed to propagate thousands of palm trees of all sorts of varieties: royal palms, fishtails, foxtails, champagne, manila, madagascar, dates, etc. We were doing all these while he studied social work, mastered Scriptures, helped out in media apostolate, etc. There seemed to be no limit to his energies.
Joel is the Outreach Coordinator of the Holy Family Academy.
Four years passed swiftly by. Joel finished social work with flying colors, passed the board exam, applied and got accepted as the outreach coordinator of Holy Family Academy. Last week, while taping an episode of our Gospel talk show, he showed up with his friends--his fellow former scholars at Holy Rosary Parish, to pay me a visit and to share about their newfound passion. They had put up together a nonstock corporation called UPLIFTED, and by chipping in from their monthly salaries some regular contributions, are basically doing something similar to what Efren Peñaflorida has become famous for: street education. They call it their chance to "pay forward." My heart melted on seeing them and their photos with street children. Who said it was all bad news in the Philippines? Who will tell the world about these young men and women silently doing their part in nation-building by giving other kids a chance in life? I sigh as I wind up this story. It is a story that makes you cry with hope, not despair. It is a story that makes you really feel good because it is not made up; it is a true story. The last time I saw Joel, I gifted him with a precious instrument for biblical exegesis for beginners: a Greek-Tagalog interlinear version. He had told me before that he was interested in learning the biblical languages: Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic. At the rate this young man can educate himself, I wouldn't be surprised if he learns all these languages within one year. And by the way, he also learned sign language so that he could interpret the whole Mass, especially the readings, at the Parish Eucharistic celebrations, with the hearing impaired. This boy has gone a pretty long way from being a blacklisted dropout from a regular school. His teachers probably thought it was the end of education for him when he was expelled. His expulsion from school actually gave him more education than schools could possibly offer.
*Originally published on the Facebook account of H. E. Most Rev. Pablo Virgilio David on April 24, 2016. Officially published in the book entitled, “The Gospel of Mercy According to Juan/a” by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, D.D. and Nina L. B. Tomen, produced by The Storytellers’ Society Inc., published in 2016 by St. Pauls, Makati City, Philippines.