Photo by Joseph Angan
THE second floor of the Horacio De La Costa Hall, also known as the humanities building, is home to Ateneo’s Theology Department. With a Christmas tree covered with blue and white trimmings at the lobby’s center giving the place a festive look, the department’s serene and simple ambience matched the humble, modest nature of the faculty members—theologians, Jesuits, instructors, professors— each working in their respective cubicles and offices.
Behind the third door on the left is where one of the finest, most prominent professors in the department, and perhaps in the whole university, can be found on one particular Thursday morning.
A smiling, bespectacled man greeted us, donning a clean white pinstriped polo and gray slacks, a red pen in hand, glancing up from his desk from what looked like a pile of testpapers. Despite his apparent busyness, he gave us a warm greeting and a smile. Roberto Conrado Guevara PhD, 49 years old, is fondly called “Sir Bobby Guev” to those who have come to truly know him. He asked us to wait outside for fifteen minutes.
Less than ten minutes passed and he approached us, signaling he’s ready to begin the interview. “Are you comfortable in your seat? If not you can take the cushion out. Sorry if it’s…” His thoughtful gestures immediately struck us and put us at ease.
Here is the man whose mission in life is to bridge the worlds of the affluent and the marginalized. He embarks on this calling by teaching a subject called Theology of the Catholic Social Vision to senior Ateneans. For more than two decades, he has taught thousands of students—more than eight thousand of them.
“Bobby Guev” is the name that has prominently stood out among a sea of teachers and professors in the university. Many describe him as “legendary,” “the ultimate life-changer,” and “magis, personified.” 2,317 people have “liked” his Facebook fan page thus far.
The poor (“the others”) and God, are the only things, Guevara mentions, which he can imagine himself teaching. The thousands of students who have enthusiastically chose or in one way or another have ended up his classes can attest to his overwhelming passion to help the poor. His lectures have inspired both believers and nonbelievers with his lectures sprinkled with universal values and thought-provoking stories from his personal experiences.
To Communication senior Gael Gatbonton, Guevara is more like a father than a teacher. “What struck me the most is his passion for the poor and how he tries to wake up his students to the realities of the world. Even as a non-believer, his lessons still affected us in how we live our lives and on how to be fair to everyone,” he said.
Senior student Charmaine Sy said, “He was a man who walked the talk and that in itself makes him very inspiring. In his class, your personal experiences are what matters most.”
Declining an invitation to join the Jesuits, he chose to teach theology and raise a family instead. His wife, Marie Chee Castro-Guevara, is a sociologist who does work on urban poverty as well as women and children’s issues—sharing the same inclination to help the impoverished. She is a teacher at Ateneo’s Interdisciplinary Studies Department as well. Together with his wife, they have raised two girls: Maita, a psychology senior at Ateneo, and Mariel, a 15-year-old sophomore at Miriam College Grade School.
His love for his family was evident through the way he constantly spoke about them. He does not express outright how much he loves his wife, but by beginning many of his sentences with the words: “I tell my wife…”
“I would ask my wife, ‘Sometimes I don’t know why I am staying in the Ateneo,’” he said, as he contemplates aloud about how he can benefit the poor more directly. “I tell my wife, did I make the right decision [to be a teacher]?” he said, as he recounts going to reunions of his friends’ huge houses and witnessing their luxurious lifestyles.
“I always tell my wife, if I die, make sure you keep that…” After he gestured to a stack of thank you cards that his senior students gave him over the years, saying that those comprise of his wealth.
When asked about the greatest lesson he wishes to impart to his students, he said, “Dream causes bigger than yourselves. Not just to dream for ourselves, but to dream for the many who are poor as well. To love, even if loving would be painful.”
“Sayang e. It’s sad to look at people live lives of mediocrity because they didn’t embrace what they’re called to do,” he said. He himself wonders whether he could have done more as a teacher, to tap into his students into channeling their passions towards poor communities. He reveals that one of his dreams is to put up a small school for children in need.
It is easy to understand why countless students regard his lectures as nothing short of mesmerizingly inspiring. The way he speaks is comforting and kind, almost more of a relating to friend than passively listening to a teacher. His carefully chosen words always come off as profound, thought-provoking, memorable. Repeating words for emphasis is a trademark of his as well: “Of course I’ve had wonderful, wonderful, wonderful students. That’s one of the reasons why I have stayed on.” He still keeps in touch with many of his former students, many of them already having their own families.
He does not know how much longer he would stay teaching in the Ateneo. “I could say I have always been lucky with the students I’ve had. We’ll see where life brings us.”
Apart from teaching and going to the mountains to help a community of Dumagats every other week, he takes time out for sports, one of his many passions that according to him, is “not attached to any “should.” A former track runner in his teenage years, he recently finished a 42-kilometer marathon hosted by his former student, and occasionally does triathlons. He is looking into joining an Ironman race next year as he turns 50. Scuba diving is another recreation of his, having been invited by his former students to try it out. “It’s fascinating underwater. There’s a turtle beside you, there’s a shark beside you, and we’re just all the same. My goodness, this is what they mean by how every breath sustains you,” he said.
Apart from his enduring status as one of the most well-loved teachers in the university, it was his dedication, humility, genuine compassion for others—core traits of being Magis that every Atenean aspires to uphold—that makes him a powerful person, albeit in an unassuming way. When we briefly explained the reason why we were interviewing him, he blushed and laughed lightly, asking, “Why me?”