On one of his visits to Malta, Fra Ġwann Xerri invited his circle of close friends and family to mass.
His mass was always meaningful. His style was the normal way things were done in Latin America, but for us it was fresh.
It was Palm Sunday. Fra Ġwann asked Nathalie Grima, the person through whom we became friends, to read the gospel. Even for a ‘liberal’ person like me, this was unsettling. I loved it.
On another occasion he would ask me to do so. I smiled and did as he asked me to do. It did unsettle those around us. We both smiled.
On this occasion there was a young man who I met for the first time there. He was more or less my age, perhaps a bit older.
After Nathalie read the gospel, Ġwann invited him to say the homily. He told us about his life.
It was the time when the Dockyard was being privatised and moving into the hands of the new owner. The man who was saying the homily was a worker there.
At the time I was very active on both LGBTI and other human rights and justice issues. While I was aware of the privatisation of It-Tarzna through the media I never engaged with that.
We listened to this man’s story and we cried. That day I learnt that oppression, exploitation, injustice, and violation of rights were far more complex than I had thought.
I was an oppressed gay man who at the time would issue a press release and within two minutes (literally) it would be published on all main newspapers in Malta.
I was now sitting in front of a heterosexual family man, listening to his story for the first time in my life and realising that this man-worker had no voice. If he spoke up he would be ridiculed or shunned at best.
For Ġwann, having a voice and language was key. It was part of his charism as a Dominican. He loved the theology of Antonietta Potente because of that. He used to tell me to study her theology. I did.
As Christians do in Malta, on that occasion we had olive-tree cuttings for the occasion. The man who preached, joined by his young son, picked up the smallest branch from the bag.
A couple of days after, Fra Ġwann and I met to debrief about the mass (we always did that). We both noticed and spoke about the fact that the man who said the homily picked up the smallest olive branch from us all.
Fra Ġwann loved both Moviment Graffitti and Drachma, two organisations very close to his heart. There was a reason why; the NGOs were never, as he used to say, single-issue organisations.
In 2013 Drachma, together with Aditus, withdrew from the LGBTI consultative council because of a Government push-back decision for people seeking asylum in Malta. I remember telling him about it, as I usually did. We would both kind of burst out laughing, the nervous kind of laughter. His face would light up and he would say: “That is why I like you. You are not a single-issue organisation.” We would strategise and discuss the next steps after that.
Once we had a misunderstanding. We were both right, we both got it a little bit wrong and both got hurt.
We met at the Sudanese ‘restaurant’ at the Marsa Open Centre when Terry Gosden used to run that. Context and perspective always mattered, always! Our disagreement was one of methodology on how to address an asylum related matter. We clarified things out, and forgave each other. Our friendship grew. He did point out how hard it was to be my friend.
On that occassion Terry and Ġwann met and enjoyed talking to each other (as those who knew and remember both men would not be surprised). Terry and Ġwann met again later, before Terry went back to England.
On a couple of occasions I accompanied João to radio stations were he was invited to speak. On our way there we would talk about Liberation Theology and the message he would want to share on air. On one occasion before going into the building he looked at me and said: “It-Teoloġija tal-Liberazzjoni lili għamlitni nies.”
If I had to summarise Ġwann’s spirituality I would say that he looked for and found beauty and hope anywhere and everywhere, especially in those places considered as nowhere or elsewhere.
He lived his life in awe of the way the poor and the marginalised struggled to survive and live, and their capacity to love. He lived his life celebrating that.
Fra Ġwann shared the below picture with a group of friends on 18 September last year lifted from this website.
The Syropheonician woman is a gentile who challenges Jesus on his beliefs and his ‘rude’ reply to her demand. She enters into dialogue with him and through that conversation Jesus changes. He overcomes his own cultural and possibly gender prejudices.
The Syropheonician woman was one of Fra Ġwann’s favourite biblical figures.
Mario Gerada is a social worker, theologian and cultural activist. He loves all things green. Lovin Malta is open to external contributions that are well written and thought-provoking. If you would like your commentary to be featured as a guest post, please write to [email protected], add Guest Post in the subject line and attach a profile photo for us to use near your byline. Contributions are subject to editing and do not necessarily represent Lovin Malta’s views.