Dan Jiru is probably not a familiar name to you. He is not well known outside of Whittier and East Los Angeles, where his name echoes and will continue to echo for decades to come. There, he is a giant.
I first met Dan over a beer at the Denny’s on Sunset Avenue and Highway 101 in Hollywood. The bar, tucked in the back, was dark and empty. We chatted over a pitcher of domestic draft. Dan was interviewing me for a job.
We talked about religion and the Church — our church, the Church of Rome. We were both compelled by the Gospel’s call to social justice and both lamented the rise of rabid fundamentalism and the associated ignorance and intolerance the movement advanced.
Dan hired me as a religion teacher that night. I became his student. For the next four years he educated me, mentored me and exposed me to a Gospel I had not known before, at least not the “roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty” Gospel. Dan was a master of that Gospel.
His strength of conviction was matched only by his will and ability to execute on those convictions. I have not met a teacher, before or since, who could so kindly and stubbornly get his way and always to benefit his students and the poor, both of which he so nobly served.
Dan founded the March for Hunger in 1972 at St. Paul High School in Whittier. The 26-mile route takes students through the poverty of East Los Angeles and skid row, through Hollywood and into the privileged wealth of Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles. The march ends at the beach in Santa Monica.
Dan’s vision was to have students experience the inherent inequality in the world and expose them to the often gross and unequal distribution of wealth. Along the way, students raise money for the chosen charity of the event, the Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen in downtown Los Angeles.
Dan Jiru’s March for Hunger remains the single most important fundraiser for the soup kitchen. Since 1972, students, parents, families and alumni of St. Paul High School have contributed more than $1 million to feed the hungry of Los Angeles.
But it is not the event that matters most, it is the man. Dan taught at St. Paul High School for 35 years. He touched thousands of students’ lives as well as those lucky enough to call him a colleague and mentor. He changed me, and I am a better man for having known him.
I came home from an early morning Mass on Dec. 23 and opened Facebook to discover that Dan had succumbed to a two-year battle with cancer. The Psalm for the day was Psalm 25. Verse 5 reads, “Encourage me to walk in your truth and teach me ... for my hope is in you all day long — such is your generosity.”
Dan embodied a life so lived. He encouraged others to do likewise. My world, those of my students, children and countless others will remain informed by him. Dan always saw himself as one of God’s humble servants. He was just that and, as such, changed the world he encountered in profound and deeply meaningful ways, including guiding seemingly hopelessly lost sheep like me.
I hadn’t seen or talked to Dan in quite awhile. I was kept marginally informed of his progress through his son, Eric, and Facebook. But after his death I saw him in a dream. We embraced; I could smell his signature cologne. He grabbed me by my shoulders, looked me directly in the eyes and smiled, conveying the message that everything would be OK. I can’t know for sure, of course, but I like to believe that Dan is continuing his ministry even now. It would be just like him.
Thank you, Dan, and Godspeed. You will be missed.