“When I saw the priest walk in, I tried to duck him.”
That’s how David Warden remembers the first time he saw Father Antonio “TJ” Martinez, S.J. (photo above), at a fundraiser. But Warden’s attempt to “duck” the priest was unsuccessful. In fact, it was so unsuccessful that he wound up becoming one of Father TJ’s closest friends and even converting to the Catholic faith.
And now, in the wake of Father TJ’s death in 2014 at age 44, Warden is committed to keeping his legacy alive: a legacy that is helping teens from disadvantaged backgrounds in Houston get a solid education, develop important life skills, and build a foundation for a better future.
“Miracle in Motion” is the name of the book that Father TJ began writing before his death – and that Warden has since finished. In the Introduction, the priest explains, “Six years ago, I was ordered by my provincial to start a Jesuit college preparatory high school for the underprivileged in Houston, Texas. [He said], ‘I know you have no school, no land, no money, no kids, and no idea how to start this process…but go get it done.'”
That’s exactly what Father TJ did, becoming the founding president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. Warden said, “The kids have to be more or less at the poverty level, even to get in, but they also have to be smart, and motivated, so they get a complete first rate Jesuit education in high school with the intention of going to college.”
In addition, explains the school’s website, “a unique Corporate Work-Study Program places students in Houston businesses and nonprofits where they earn up to 50 percent of the cost of their education.”
Warden is an engineer and lawyer who also teaches at Rice University, so he got involved to help arrange job opportunities for the students through all his connections. He says, “A lot of these kids, if they’re left in the school systems in their neighborhood, they’re the ones that get beat up because they want to learn…The doors that are opened for them, the vistas they see through going to Cristo Rey Jesuit, and the opportunities given to them by getting into college is a life they didn’t envision.”
So how did Father TJ get it done successfully in such a short amount of time? For one thing, his favorite mantra was, “Whatever happens, the story will end well.” In other words, he worked tirelessly himself, while trusting God to bring about the best ending.
In addition, notes Warden, “He had an uncanny ability to relate to anyone at any place on the socio-economic spectrum. He could be in the barrios of Houston and relate to those people. And then that night, he could be in the most expensive homes in Houston, drinking fine wine and bringing those people closer to God…If you really wanted to put him in a capsule for me and for so many others, he was equal parts friend, hero, and saint.”
For Warden, who didn’t have a Catholic background, it was Father TJ’s approach to life and mystery that ended up converting him: “The more I talked to him, the more I saw room for somebody who approached the mystery in life. He called it the mystery of our faith. We don’t need to know how it all is, but we need to know there’s mystery out there.”
For a man with so much seemingly left to do with his life, it is a mystery why Father TJ died so young. The diagnosis of stage four stomach cancer came as a shock, and he initially was committed to beating it. But the chemotherapy didn’t do any good and left him feeling debilitated.
“We were sitting around one evening,” recalled Warden, “and Father TJ said, ‘I would rather live a shorter life, feel better, and get some things done than keep fighting this thing. Maybe I’m fighting God’s will.’ That’s an interesting line for a priest, or anybody, to take. He’s not suggesting that he’s going to let himself die for no reason, but if all of the medicines that we can bring to the floor are not helping – and it’s making his life more or less useless – shouldn’t he take the path that optimizes his life? That’s what he ultimately chose.”
That was also the night he decided to start writing “Miracle in Motion,” the miracle being his students, not his previously hoped-for cure. The book is full of life lessons for all of them – and for any reader who has faced challenges or missteps in life.
Father TJ is honest about his own past, such as the fact that he came from a modest background with good parents, but that he is also a child of divorce, like some of the Cristo Rey students are.
“He works through those issues as a kid would,” explains Warden, “and makes several false starts on what he wants to do in life. For instance, he graduated from the University of Texas Law School, and as soon as he passed the Texas bar, he joined the Jesuits…[By sharing that], he was trying to tell the kids, ‘You can make mistakes, make false moves, and be in uncomfortable positions, but still be yourself and keep your eye on the goal.’ That’s the message he wanted to leave them with. I can’t imagine how hard it is for these kids, for instance, to get a full scholarship to a place like Rice University, which is a top private school, and all of a sudden you’re with 1,000 kids that aren’t like you and didn’t come from where you did. He wanted to be around for that, and the book is the next best thing he could do.”
For Warden, Father TJ will always be a light in the darkness – and he believes that “Miracle in Motion” will help readers find that light in their own lives.
Warden concludes, “None of us who work, support families and have kids can devote the kind of time to doing the things he did to build people up. But without saying it, he [implied], ‘Maybe you could do a little bit more than you’re doing.’ And you know, he’s right. There’s a benefit that one gets out of doing that. It’s not just labor; it does oneself good. There’s many, many people around this town, and this state, and maybe in the United States that have been touched like that by TJ. I may be the only conversion to the faith that he had while he was alive, but I suspect that he’ll get a few others through reading this book.”
And for a priest whose mantra was, “Whatever happens, the story will end well,” that sure sounds like his ongoing mission will be accomplished.
(To listen to my full interview with David Warden, click on the podcast link):