By Fr. Gerdenio Manuel, SJ
Fr. Sonny Manuel, SJ, is celebrating 50 years as a Jesuit this year. He recently retired from the University of San Francisco and is currently a clinical psychologist in private practice at South of Market Health Center in San Francisco. This essay originally appeared in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, Volume 33, Number 5, 1 November 2001.
Although I am a West Coast Jesuit, I am a native New Yorker, born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan, attended kindergarten at PS 22 and grade school at St. Michael’s in Flushing. Growing up in the 1950s in Whitestone and Flushing in the borough of Queens, I remember New York as a warm and welcoming city. Our neighborhood was mostly Jewish, Italian and Irish American. We were the only Filipinos and the only Asians in the neighborhood, but it didn’t seem to matter. Our closest friends were the Fantuzzis across the street, and all the neighborhood families were welcome in each other’s homes and apartments. I didn’t recognize anything different about myself or my family other than all of us were noticeably shorter than everyone else.
Being short or small did not hold any of us back. After work my father went to night school to complete the undergraduate and graduate degrees that enabled him to pursue a lifetime career in the Philippine Foreign Service. At St. Michael’s, my sister once was the May Queen, and I was class president several years running. The Sisters of Saint Joseph, Brentwood, were remarkably even-tempered, fair with praise and the ruler, and especially patient with the newly arrived students from Cuba who had some trouble with English. At compulsory Benediction, as we sang Tantum Ergo with all the lights out in the church and the smell of incense everywhere, there was the sense that all of us at St. Michael’s belonged to God and perhaps even to one another. It seemed there was nothing more important than being Catholic, no matter who you were or where you were from.
Adolescence and later life experience would complicate my naive understanding of race, religion, culture, faith and community. One of my earliest memories of what it meant to be Filipino was the boast I heard repeatedly from middle school classmates that General MacArthur and the United States “saved” the Philippines, which in their minds clearly established the superiority of the United States and the American people over the Philippines and Filipino people. This made me in their words a “little brown brother.” At home, former U.S. Army doctors—who along with my mother, a Filipina U.S. Army nurse, were World War II prisoners of war and survivors of the Bataan Death March—talked instead about the shared suffering, surviving together, serving one another, and extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity they had experienced. As my mother blushed in silence, they told me stories of her courage and fortitude in their most trying circumstances and of her compassion for the soldiers under her care. They made their visits to our home occasions for remembering and expressing their gratitude. Being small and Filipino mattered in different ways to different people, and it was beginning to matter to me.
Like the Vietnamese who would later also be identified with an unforgettable war, Filipino-Americans still struggle with the myth and reality of World II and U.S. colonization and continue to fight for the veterans’ rights and benefits that the U.S. government had promised its “little brown brothers and sisters.” Within American popular culture and society, we aim to establish our identity as a unique ethnic group with a distinctive cultural history as well as a contemporary set of political concerns.
In more than 30 years as a Jesuit, I can recall several experiences that helped me understand how Jesuits and others failed to appreciate the extent to which my cultural context and self-understanding determine how I live my life, my ministry and my priesthood in the Society. Sometimes, there were “innocent” insults rooted in ignorance or mistaken attributions. I have never forgotten a famous interchange following a university lecture on missiology by historian Fr. Horacio De la Costa, a former Philippine provincial and at the time one of Fr. Arrupe’s general assistants. With some impatience, a priest commented in a thick Irish brogue, “Tell me Father, until the arrival of our Christian missionaries, weren’t Filipinos pagan after all?” To which Fr. De la Costa patiently replied, “No, Father, they were animists. They worshipped the god of the trees, the god of the rivers, the god of the lakes—they were animists, Father, just like the Irish.”
In the years to come, the grace and wit of his reply helped me respond kindly or at least silently when, greeting people at the church doors, I would be met with “Father, welcome to St. Theresa’s, it must be Mission Sunday” or “Thank you, Father, it was a lovely Mass and you speak such beautiful English” or “We just love the islands!” In the Jesuit dining room at Santa Clara University during my early years as a faculty member, I was walking by one of the tables at lunch when a guest snapped his fingers at me, signaling me to clear the table and bus his dishes. Neither educational achievement, living in religious community, nor holy orders made me immune from the stereotyping, entitlement and rudeness that our kitchen and household help—many of whom are Filipino or Latino in the California Province—sometimes experience from our guests or even from ourselves. After all, not too long ago California law prohibited Filipinos from marrying whites, and in my college years I can recall a good friend awkwardly informing me that her Sicilian parents preferred that their daughter find another date for the freshman dance.
I would like to believe that we’ve come a long way from those days, especially in the Society, but sometimes I wonder. When I was the California Province’s formation director and for a time also vocation director, many in our province were delighted with the growing diversity of our scholastics. Others would ask, “How many speak English?” or “Are you sure they are prepared for our course of studies?” or, believe it or not, “Not counting the minorities, how many vocations do we have?” Similarly, when it was time for regency assignments, I would have to convince some administrators in prolonged and intense conversation that our scholastics of color were as capable as their peers of meeting ordinary teaching and pastoral responsibilities. “And what about their accents, what’s being done about that?” I’ve frequently wondered why European accents are considered charming while Asian or Hispanic ones are not.
I have often been questioned about my credentials, experience, and training—right down to where I studied and when I received my degrees. When visiting other Jesuit communities across the country, I found that some Jesuits were surprised and incredulous that I was California’s formation director, a clinical psychologist and a tenured university professor. More recently, a former high school Jesuit administrator visiting my community at Santa Clara lamented over dinner that his prep school was admitting “Qwoks, Chins and Nguyens” while rejecting its Irish and Italian “heritage” students, some of whom were relatives of Jesuits. More subtly, in group settings I’ve sometimes observed that Jesuits of color are neglected in conversation, albeit unconsciously to the extent that some Jesuits even fail to make eye contact with us. Often enough, these experiences within the Society leave me feeling “invisible” and, as people of color in so many different situations, without legitimate claim to position or place—as “guests” at the big house without voice.
While some experiences in the Society have challenged and even hurt me, I remain grateful and proud to be a Jesuit. I have experienced the profound depth of community life and the transforming power of our ministry. As a Filipino who highly values and needs companionship, I have always felt the presence and support of the Society in times of personal crisis and pain. When my parents wanted to return home to the Philippines after 50 years of living in the States and later when they had to be separated because of my father’s advancing dementia, Jesuits offered to help me so I would not face these challenges alone, even in the Philippines. When my father had to return to California for medical treatment and for a time when he was in need of some assisted living before returning to the Philippines, the then-rector at Santa Clara University welcomed him into our infirmary and community. And when each of my parents died, a close Jesuit friend traveled with me to the Philippines and helped me bury them and care for my extended family. In these and numerous other instances of faithful and compassionate support, the Society’s love has been unwavering and unconditional beyond what I had ever thought was possible.
With the same power and grace, Jesuit life and ministry have given me the opportunity to deepen my love for others and my appreciation for the diversity of our world. The witness of my Jesuit brothers through the years, especially with regard to the preferential option for the poor, has challenged me to travel where I would never have had the courage to travel alone and to stretch my own cultural and class boundaries to discover the breadth and range of God’s concern for all peoples and nations, whether in the barrios of Manila, the campo of El Salvador, the favellas of Brazil, or the inner cities of our own country. Ultimately, the challenge of multiculturalism and diversity is not about individuals or even groups simply being at home but about discovering the world as our common ground and justice and service as our common destiny.
We need to see with more discerning eyes how differences matter and how they don’t. A close Jesuit friend who knows me as well as anyone had long believed that my most distinctive traits were simply idiosyncratic. However, after spending time with my family in the Philippines, he concluded, “Oh my God, the whole country is populated with people like you.” I have no doubt that most Jesuits in my province identify Filipinos with lumpia and chicken adobo, bamboo dances, the blessing of homes and cars, and elaborate folk celebrations and rituals. But few have deep insight into the Filipino psyche—the paramount importance, for example of pakikisama (solidarity), utang na loob (debt of gratitude) and lambing (solicitousness) to name just a few possible Filipino character traits that I also embrace as my own.
These attributes can combine to form a leadership style or way of working very different from the typical American “alpha male” paradigm, which stresses dominance, power and assertiveness. Positively interpreted, Filipinos can be viewed as process-oriented, sensitive and compassionate, respectful of and even deferential to authority. We value relationships—especially friends and coworkers—more than position or place or products, and lead “from behind” by persuasion, affirmation and kindness. Viewed negatively, we can seem wishy-washy, maudlin and sentimental. We can appear to be fawning, cliquish, manipulative and lacking independence and self-assertion. Positively and negatively, this leadership and working style is clearly different and must be carefully interpreted when trying to understand how Filipinos may or may not be expressing their needs, hopes and dreams.
From an assimilationist perspective, I certainly have learned that I may need to put aside my cultural proclivities to be heard and counted. On the other hand, from the perspective of acculturation and rapidly changing demographics, the Society and its various institutions will need as well to see the present and future reality through many new eyes and to appreciate the leadership and working styles of difference and sometimes recently arrived cultures and communities. If we are not to remain guests in this house, ask us what we need to be genuinely at home and to become full partners in serving God’s people, and hear us in our own voice.
I still believe in what I learned from my Filipino family and from the Sisters at Saint Michael’s—that we all belong to God and to one another. But through my Jesuit life and ministry, I have also come to trust in the God of Pentecost, who created all the ways we have been fed throughout our lifetimes by our families and our cultural heritage. As we discover who we are and tell our life stories to others, they will understand what God has created in us—even what is most different from them and unique to us. As we listen to each other’s stories, we will realize that all of us are summoned to the same table, where God feeds us not only with familiar food and spirits but also with the new and untried food and spirits of God’s most recent revelation. And here, around the Lord’s table, God’s grace will make us mindful of those not yet at the table, those who haven’t found their places, those whose stories are yet to be heard.