This is the fifth in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2012. The March 14 issue of HNP Today featured Bonaventure Hayes, OFM.
NAIROBI, Kenya — Joseph Ehrhardt, OFM, who celebrates his golden jubilee this year, first dreamed of the adventures of being a missionary even as a boy growing up in New Jersey. Driving a jeep through the jungle and maybe even flying a small plane are what went through his mind.
After almost 45 years of ministering in Japan and Kenya, Joseph well knows the harsh realities of missionary work, which have included being jailed, heading off thieves face-to-face, and seeing people suffer on two continents. “Of course, those boyhood dreams matured into something more in tune with reality as the years and challenges came and went,” wrote Joe last week from his home base at the Provincial friary at Westlands, in Nairobi, Kenya.
Joe, who has been at Westlands doing Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation work for the past two years, spent more than 20 years at a parish in the Kenyan countryside, more than 160 miles from the city. There, he was involved in both pastoral and JPIC work.
“Today, I travel 17 miles across the city several times each week to our JPIC office in Africa, where I’m the director of activities there,” said Joe, who is in charge of JPICFA. “We go for youth trainings in JPIC, human rights advocacy and active non-violence in the East African region.” He estimates reaching more than 60 youth groups with the Franciscan JPIC message.
Joe says that JPIC efforts have always been close to his heart. “Seeing our ministry in justice and peace bear fruit in the lives of people who overcame tribal prejudices and division to work in solidarity for genuine peace and reconciliation, especially after 2007 to 2008, is probably the most rewarding aspect of ministry that I’ve witnessed.”
While the rewards of missionary work are great, he said, so are the challenges. “The saddest thing is to see thousands of internally displaced people who were promised by the government to be resettled in good time still languishing physically and emotionally in badly torn tents almost five years later.”
Joe attributes his longevity as a missionary to “confidence in God’s Providence, a bit of nitty-gritty perseverance and a growing sense of gratitude for God’s goodness in every situation.”
He first met the friars when he attended grammar school at St. Mary Church in Pompton Lakes, N.J. He attended St. Joseph Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., before entering the order in Lafayette, N.J., in 1961 and professed simple vows in 1962. He then completed his undergraduate education at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H. After theological studies at Holy Name College in Washinton, D.C., he was ordained a priest in 1967.
Joe was first assigned as a language student in 1968 in Japan, where he spent the next 14 years. He said that he has found the Africans, while living in much poorer conditions, to be more open to hearing the Gospel than the people of Japan. There are also similarities.
“I’ve found that the Africans’ desire and need for finding consensus in meetings, rather than a Westerner’s tendency to stress the importance of my personal opinion, to be quite similar to the Japanese way of communication.”
In both Joe’s situations, he has kept a lifestyle as close to authentic as possible. “Our life in the country parish was quite simple, even rustic, with the bad roads, threat of getting malaria, and little access to any means of communication.”
And while today’s use of cell phones and Internet make it somewhat easier, he recalled having to climb hills — even trees — to find a signal.
He recalled spending a day in jail for supposedly trying to overthrow the government, and being approached by three thieves invading the friary. “One had a machete, another a club, and the third had an AK47 gun, demanding money.” Joe greeted them with, “Welcome, Brother thieves,” which helped diffuse the situation. They eventually fled with very little and no one was hurt.
Joe, who comes to the United States to visit every year or so, has five siblings scattered all over the country. He enjoys visiting with them, along with seeing contemporaries John McVean, OFM, Charles Miller, OFM, and John Felice, OFM. “I also look forward to meeting Thomas Cole, OFM, and going with Michael Joyce, OFM, with whom I’ve shared mission in both Japan and Kenya, to visit my classmate Bonaventure Hayes, OFM, and pioneer Africa missioner Finian Riley, OFM, at our Ringwood, N.J., friary.”
Through the past 50 years, Joe, an alumnus of the Province, said he has been grateful for his vocation as a follower of Jesus and St. Francis, who “always challenges me to more genuinely humble and joyful life of service to all of God’s children in harmony with his beautiful creation.”
He is also thankful to Holy Name Province, which he refers to as his “Mother Province.” “It’s always generous, caring and welcoming me home, and has been an inspiration for me through the newsletter regarding the many creative and fruitful ministries of the HNP friars.”
Joe has enjoyed his newfound hobby of biking, after giving up riding a motorcycle when he turned 70, last year. “Now, I get through the famous Nairobi city traffic jams by bicycle and enjoy the benefits of good exercise.”
He also looks forward to working with the JPIC office to further plan and collaborate with those working to bring reconciliation to Kenyans in this critical election year, as well as to carry on the outreach training workshops for youth and peace-building.
This year, Joe began working with Susan Slavin, a Franciscan Mission Service volunteer, and experienced New York City human rights lawyer, on assignment in Kenya. She is assisting the JPIC office in its youth trainings and preparing to set up a legal aid clinic.
He said he is also dreaming of the “possibility of spending some of my home leave this year visiting our friars and my former mission communities in Japan for meeting beloved ‘natskashi,’ old friends and ‘ohaka mairi,’ graves of loved ones.”
“Mission work,” he wrote, “is no longer seen as a one-way street, where missionaries proudly bring the Good News of the Gospel. We now recognize the need to humbly and reverently receive the Good News already very much alive in the cultures, traditions and values of the people with whom we journey together toward a deeper understanding of the truth we are all searching for.”
Joe and his eight classmates will be honored by Holy Name Province at the annual jubilee celebration in June.
— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today.