Patrick C.W. Tam '81
Like so many Holy Cross students over the years who commence from Mount St. James with a bachelor’s degree and a call to explore ways to combine faith and social justice, Patrick Tam entered the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
JVC alumni often invoke a proud, ironic sentiment—that they were “ruined for life” after living in community with people who are poor and suffering in some of the most vulnerable parts of the United States and the world. These JVC alumni cite how profoundly changed they were by their experience, even as they move on to graduate school, advance in their careers, and build their own lives in other communities.
Yet Patrick found that he was called to make his life where JVC had brought him. He stayed two years, then three, then 15, and, in August, it will be 30 years that he has lived with the native Eskimo people in remote western Alaska—where the landscape of heart-stopping natural beauty can also be marked by unemployment, poverty, despair, abuse, illness, and sometimes loss of faith. This son of Chinese immigrants who grew up in Rhode Island, who majored in philosophy and wrote award-winning poetry found that his path was to be with and learn from people whose life and culture were so different from his.
For the past three decades (save for two years when he earned a master’s degree at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley), Patrick has lived in Emmonak, a village of about 600 at the mouth of the Yukon River and has worked as a lay minister to Eskimo youth and adults. Along the way, he has learned to fish, hunt, chop wood and build fires; to appreciate traditional Eskimo dance and drumming as well as the intensity of the Alaskan seasons.
Now as the director of adult faith formation for the Diocese of Fairbanks, he works with the Yup’ik people in the 24 parishes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region. In collaboration with lay ministers in villages throughout the region, Patrick has supported parish leaders, helped individuals and families find educational resources, and developed opportunities for spiritual life and prayer through retreats and workshops. He has devoted himself to finding ways to stretch young people’s notions of spirituality beyond something reserved for Elders or priests; to sharing methods of prayer and different paths leading to spiritual growth.
“For me,” Patrick has written, “the Emmaus story speaks of recognizing the Risen Lord while walking with his people, sharing their joys and hopes, dreams and sorrows.” And he says that what has become most important to him is that “my understanding and appreciation of the Gospel deepens and grows the more I hear and share it with and among the Yup’ik people.”
At the Jesuits’ 35th General Congregation, Pope Benedict called upon the Society, its collaborators and its institutions, to affirm the special mission of the Jesuits in the Catholic Church to be “at the frontiers . . . those geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach or find it dif¬ficult to reach.”
For working at the frontiers and for serving as a model to all of us in the wider Jesuit Community, for proclaiming Christ’s Good News as he has walked with the people of Alaska, the College of the Holy Cross presents to Patrick C.W. Tam the Sanctae Crucis Award.