Fr. Mario Quejadas: A Man on a Mission
Updated: Sep 6
This is a story about empathy. The simple act of being able to understand and feel someone else’s experience. In our world today, this is so important as we begin to realize how connected we are with one another.
One of the most difficult aspects of fighting poverty is getting people to come to grips with the reality of being poor. Poverty can be hard to imagine, especially when the poor are thousands of miles away. But one priest has found a way to unlock the empathy within us.
Filipino priest Fr. Mario Quejadas of St Walter Diocese of Joliet, Illinois has been bringing students from schools such as Benedictine and St. Francis University to Gawad Kalinga villages in the Philippines for build activities and community service during their Christmas breaks.
“I got involved with GK in 2008, what I love about GK is that it is more than just building a house, it’s about building relationships.” says Fr. Mario.
Once a year, Fr. Mario leads a group of about 30 students from Illinois to Bacolod to build homes GK homes. It sounds simple, but its mission runs deeper than just providing a roof. It is a mission of empathy.
“Most of our life as pastoral leaders and my life as a priest is working for the poor. But it is FOR the poor, not WITH the poor. GK is the only venue that I have experienced in which the poor and I are working together hand in hand. That is life changing.” Says Fr. Mario.
As the students spend their time building homes with the very people who will eventually live in them, meals are shared, life stories are shared, the daily trials of being poor in Negros Occidental are shared, and in this sharing of these basic human experiences, something magical and special happens – empathy begins beating in their young hearts.
Fr. Mario adds, “In every GK community that I’ve worked with in Negros, you meet the kids, you interact with the teenagers, you mingle with the lolas and lolos… you work with the recipient of the home, there is that bond over there that happens naturally. You won’t have any, otherwise.”
By the first day that the students arrive, the change within them happens almost immediately. More than seeing the poor living conditions and their daily struggle, it is experiencing their joyful spirit that not even poverty can extinguish that opens their eyes and their hearts. Fr. Mario explains, “For our first mass there, the village kids sing in the choir and when they sing, they clap and sing at the top of their lungs. The university students are so culture shocked, having never experienced anything like that here in the States. And when it’s time to say 'Peace Be With You' the village kids hug them and say 'I love you.' That makes my kids cry.”
They see a whole different church, a whole different spirituality besides a whole different culture and race. One of Fr. Mario’s students is now a nurse but continues to join him on these trips. “The change in my students is very inspiring. So is the change in the lives of the people that we serve with. We have always learned from our interaction at the GK villages that language is not a barrier, economic status is not a barrier, even religious beliefs are not a barrier, because not all people who come with me are Catholics. GK is one of those things that help me in my being a priest.”
Due to COVID-19, the trip for 2020 has been cancelled but we hope Fr. Mario and his students continue their mission in the years to come. Our world needs more empathy just like we need more Fr. Mario's.