Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Returning to Thailand

My preaching trip to Lafayette was the very last stint I had in the U.S. on my home leave before I returned back to Thailand to take up my mission work that I had left behind the last two and a half months.

What a blessed time it was for me to come back for this visit after three years away from home. I came back and saw my parents had grown a bit older and weaker, and I love them more than ever. I came back and saw my nephews and nieces had gotten bigger and older, and there were even some new additions to the family. I came back and presided at my sister's wedding, the last wedding in the family. I came back and found my friends still cared about me and the distance and time away from them did not make them become less good to me. I came back and found that there were so many people who felt touched by what I do in the mission field and were willing to support me in truly unexpected ways. I also came back and found that I had a message about mission to share with those who were willing to listen.

On the way to the airport today, my brother in law, Trieu asked me, "So did you do everything you wanted to do on your homeleave?"

"Yes," I told him. "I was able to do all that I wanted to do. I managed to spend time with the family, saw my friends, reconnect with my SVD confreres, preach about mission, and do some fundraising for my future work. I had a truly blessed time."

Now I return to Thailand, to my mission work, to trying to experiment with activities that may or may not bear fruit, but one simply has to try. I return to my small Catholic congregation in Thailand and try to figure out how to make this congregation grow and develop in faith and in numbers. I return to my work with people suffering from HIV/AIDS and have to figure out how to help them in ways that will really benefit them and make them feel the sense of integrity and value that they have lost. And I return to my work with the youth, teaching them, designing activities for them, and giving them directions in life. There is a lot of work waiting for me. I feel excited at the possibilities ahead, at the same time apprehension because it's not always easy to know what is the right thing to do.

And at this prospect, I realize that I need to pray - pray for strength, pray for guidance, pray for courage, and pray for wisdom. I pray that I may know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. I pray that whatever it is that I do, I do it for others and not for myself. I pray that when I fail, I will not be discouraged or angry. I pray that when I am successful, I will not become arrogant. I pray that when I don't have enough means to do it one way, I will become creative to do it in other ways. I pray that will I use love and faith more than time and money in my work.

Taipei, Taiwan 27.10.2009

My weekend in Lafayette, LA

Last weekend, I was invited to do mission preaching at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. The pastor of this church is Fr. Thomas James, SVD and the associate pastor is Fr. Michael Long Vu, SVD. Fr. Michael is my ordination classmate. There were ten people in our class. The rest of our classmates are working in other places in the world. Michael ended up in the south and I ended up in Thailand.

I didn't intend to go to LA at first, but when I called Michael, he invited me to come. He said the parishioners at his church are generous to missionaries and they are very welcoming. So was Fr. James. When Michael asked Fr. James if I could come to do mission preaching at his church, he didn't hesitate to agree.

Fr. James is an African American priest. He's a good hearted man, and his demeanor is always cheerful. We didn't talk too much when I was there because Fr. James decided to take the weekend off, going fishing, watching football, and doing other things. But I never felt that I was not welcomed. I just had to make myself at home, and I had no trouble doing that since this was an SVD parish.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church has a lot of history to it. Next month, it's celebrating 75 years anniversary. It started just as a small chapel headed by 4 African American SVD priests. These were the first African American priests to be ordained. At that time, due to segregation in the South, our SVD priests could integrate into the diocese like the rest of the white priests. So they started this chapel. Now 75 years later, IHM is a vibrant African American parish. There are 5 Masses on the weekends and 2 Masses on Monday. Michael told me that the weekday morning mass has about 100 attendants, which is not bad.

When I was at Lafayette, I had to "work for my money" so to speak. Fr. James let me preside and preach at all the weekend masses. Fr. Michael was always by my side to make sure I didn't feel uncomfortable in front of the congregation. But at no point did I feel uncomfortable because this was one of the most welcoming bunch of people I have ever met. They were also good hearted people who were always aware that they were blessed.

They were blessed with a good pastor, a good church, and good parishioners. On Sunday, I celebrated 4 masses from 6 a.m. until noon, but I remained surprisingly strong by the time I finished. No doubt the people's cheerful and welcoming attidue had something to do with it. They even made me forget that I had come down with a flu on Friday and had barely begun to subside by Sunday.

I felt good preaching to the congregation. Even though this was the first time I celebrated Mass with a predominantly African-American congregation, I really felt at home. I didn't feel like I needed to change my style to be like the "Baptist minister" to appeal to African Americans. I simply preached what I knew and what I felt based on the Scripture reading and my missionary experience. As usual, before I begin the Gospel reading, I stand in front of the altar and pray that God sends the Spirit upon me in order to direct and transform my mouth so I can preach the Word with conviction. I never begin preaching without asking for the Holy Spirit to descend upon me and work in me. And the congregation responded well.

I guess this is the beauty of the Catholic Church. No matter where we go, Vietnam, Thailand, or the U.S., there is always some commonalities that we can find. It makes us comfortable in new situation because we believe in the same God and speak from the same faith. And it's the working of the same Holy Spirit.

I was truly grateful for last weekend. I got to know a whole new congregation that I did not know before. It is certainly a place that I will come back to visit the next chance I get to return to the U.S.

Costa Mesa, CA 26.10.2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

World Mission Sunday 2009 Homily

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it is really an honor and a joy for me to be able to have a part in this year’s Mission Sunday celebration at Divine Word College. When I was in Chicago for novitiate and theology studies, I managed to make it back to Epworth almost every year for this celebration. The reason I came back was because I think Mission Sunday celebration at Epworth was the one celebration we had that made me feel very connected to what The SVDs was about, what Epworth was about, and what I’m about. When I was discerning religious vocations, there were a lot of things that I was uncertain of, but the one thing I was never uncertain about was that if I were to be in religious life, I had to be a missionary.

The other reason I came back was of course for….the international foodfest with all the delicious food made by the students. You should have seen the scene in the kitchen last night. Father Khien Luu counter a total of 24 priests, sisters, and seminarians joining together just to make one simple dish of Vietnamese dumplings. And with nearly 50 people in the kitchen, it was pretty amazing that the stove only caught fire once. Fortunately, Fr. Thang was there to the rescue and nobody’s eyebrows got burnt.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been back for a home visit from my mission work in the northeast of Thailand. And it’s been almost 4 years since I’ve been to Epworth. So it’s nice to come back here again on this special occasion. I’m glad to see that there are new changes, and there are somethings that haven’t changed. The most obvious and impressive change is that DWC seems to have gotten more beautiful (referring to the presence of sisters now studying at the college). And I’m not talking about the buildings. But it’s comforting to know that Fr. Mike is still the college president, the Pour House is still selling coffee at ten cents a cup, and philosophy still doesn’t make sense to most of the students.

You know, if you’ve been away on trips, especially to an exotic place like Thailand where you have to learn about the language, food, and culture, when you come back, you always want to tell people about what you did, where you went, and what you saw. Family and friends pretend to be interested for about 5 minutes, then they’re like: OK, let’s get back to Fantasy Football. So I’ll just spend a few minutes telling you about Thailand. When I first came to Thailand, the first thing I had to do was learn the language. Now the thing about Thai language is that it doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, but its own alphabet. There are 44 consonants and 32 vowels. It’s also a tonal language, so making low sounds or high sounds does matter to the meaning of the word.

When I first came to Thailand, I stayed with the Redemptorists in Bangkok. That’s where I did my language training. One of the priests there gave me some warnings about the language. He said making some simple mistakes can lead to very dangerous changes in meanings. For example, If you said: พระเป็นเจ้าเป็นผู้ขี้ให้, it means: God is One who likes to give, to bless. It is a very beautiful characterization of God. However, if you were nervous when you speak, and you accidentally changed the order of the word ขี้ and the word ให้, you end up saying: พระเป็นเจ้าเป็นผู้ให้ขี้, which translates: God is One who gives…..excrement. And this is not a flattering description of God at all!

As you can see, learning the intricacies of the language, the traditions, and the culture of the country where we work is all part of the missionary experience. It can be a source of great adventure as well as frustration. However, without this part of it, missionary work is hopeless.

At Epworth, the SVDs are charged with a great responsibility of training future missionaries. And what does it mean to be a missionary? I think the Gospel reading today gives us some very good explanations. If we model our mission work on Jesus’ own mission, we discover the following: First and foremost, the missionary must be someone filled with the Spirit of the Lord, who sends us and guides us. Without the Spirit, the source of all our strength, courage, wisdom, and hope, the missionary is totally clueless.

The Gospel passage also tells us that the missionary is sent to preach the Good News. That’s right, preach the Good News. We’re not sent to condemn cultures and civilizations. We’re not sent to topple political systems. We’re not sent to develop local economies. We’re sent to preach the Good News, which is that we are loved by God, called to enter into God’s embrace, and be a part of God’s life and God’s vision for the world. The Good News has to be at the center of whatever we do.

And of course, the people to whom we preach this Good News are those who are most in need of hearing the Good News: The poor, the captive, the oppressed, and the outcast. The missionary works with the people and for the people to make God’s Good News a reality in their life. All over the world, SVD missionaries with the help of local people and the supporters of mission I call them the “stay at home” missionaries, are engaged in a myriad of activities that aim to achieve this. In Thailand, one of the main SVD work is caring for and supporting people with HIV/AIDS at our center, at the church where I’m the pastor, as well as in the village. For us, bringing the Good News to people suffering from AIDS defines greatly our presence in this country.

One thing that we can clearly see in Jesus’ declaration is the clarity of intent and purpose in carrying out his mission. As we celebrate Mission Sunday today, each of us is called to reflect on our own mission with that same clarity. We, whether it’s priests and religious, seminarians, or lay people, have to examine our Christian life to ask ourselves: How much commitment have we made to this work? No matter who we are, when it comes to the Christian mission, all of us have our work cut out for us, and no one is off the hook.

In some ways, the fact that we have a “Mission Sunday Mass” is rather ironic, isn’t it? In reality, every Mass, every Eucharistic celebration is mission in character. We can see this most clearly when at the end of every mass, we are told to go to love and serve the Lord. Sometimes the celebrant wants to make it real specific by adding the phrase “and one another” in case people forget that you can’t love and serve God without loving and serving your fellow human beings too. Either way, the celebrant doesn’t tell you: “The Mass is ended, go home and enjoy Sunday football.” Or, “The Mass is ended, go back to bed.” Sure, many people will probably go home from Mass to watch Sunday football, but hopefully, they’ll also remember to love and serve the Lord and one another the rest of the time as well.

You know, coming back to California from the mission field only after three years, I was quite surprised to see how much things have changed. People are now using Iphones and Blackberries. There’s luxury cars all over the roads – and that’s when our economy is going through difficult times. We’re always trying to improve and upgrade the quality of our material life. That’s understandable. However, the same can’t always be said of our spiritual life.

In fact, how we handle our spiritual life is very different. We attempt to find every possible way to keep our spiritual activities to a minimum requirement – one hour of Mass on Sunday, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t harm others, go to confession once a year. We do this with the hope that it’ll somehow keep us out of hell. Some of us are more than happy to get purgatory. Hey, it’ll be painful for a while, but at least it’s not permanent. We live just enough so as not to fall into hell, but don’t necessarily strive for heaven.

I think Mission Sunday reminds each of us that we not only need to upgrade our spiritual life on a personal level, but also for the sake of others as well. Recently, a high school student in Chicago was beaten to death by a mob. This incident was witnessed by numerous bystanders. I believe as much as we should be outraged at the individuals who picked up the wooden planks to beat the victim, we ought to be equally outraged at the individuals who simply stood by to watch and let it happen.

Brothers and sisters, the mission field has no place for workers who simply stand idly by to watch weeds grow up, choking the crops and destroying the harvest. More than ever, the mission field needs people who don’t just observe apathetically from the bank while others immerse themselves knee deep in the mud. We need people who don’t just “Come and See,” but also people who are willing to make that “Yes” response.

YES, I’m going to do something about social injustice in society.
YES, I’m going to do something about spiritual poverty among my friends and family.
YES, I’m going to do something about the fact that my children aren’t going to church anymore and the pews in churces are increasingly empty on Sunday.
YES, I’m going to do something about mission work overseas and at home that need my prayer and support.
YES, I’m going to do something about the lack of people responding to the call to religious vocations.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, Mission Sunday reminds us that we cannot take the minimum as the standard for our Christian life. Rather, it is about living out this life intently, purposefully, and enthusiastically. It is about saying “YES” to be part of God’s mission to preach the Good News to the world. It is about joining together as a community to do the task that we have been asked to do according to our vocation to the best of our ability knowing that the Spirit of the Lord is with us, knowing that the hope of the poor and the marginalized drive us, and knowing that joy and peace in serving God will be our greatest reward.

From our quiet suburbs, we are called to bring peace to the violent streets of the inner city. From our townhomes and condominiums, we are called to bring Jesus to the straw huts of Africa. From the corn fields of Iowa, we are called to preach the Good News on the mountains of Papua New Guinea. And from this very seminary, we are called to go out with joy and enthusiasm, for how beautiful in the fields, in the valleys, and upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, proclaiming salvation, and saying to Zion, “Your God is King!”

May God bless all of us, send His spirit upon us, and may we be ready to respond to God’s call each and everyday of our life. Amen

Divine Word College Seminary, Epworth, IA, 18 October 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Divine Word College Seminary

I'm at the Divine Word College Seminary in Epworth, Iowa. I arrived here yesterday after visiting the province headquarters in Techny, IL. The reason I am here at the Divine Word Seminary is to visit the SVD community here. This is where I spent one year from 1998-1999 as an Associate discerning a vocation in religious life, specifically with the Divine Word missionaries.

Epworth is a small town located in the Tri-state area, not too far from the Mississippi river and the Illinois border. There is not much to speak of about this town. By far, the seminary is the town's most famous landmark. It can be seen clearly from Interstate 20 running through the town. When I was at the seminary, I often sat on the lawn stretching from the seminary above running to the street below to watch the cars passing by on the interstate. On the other side of the interstate is cornfields that spread out as far as the eyes can see. In the winter, these cornfields become a white carpet of snow. I suppose the Society chose Epworth to build the seminary is precisely because there is nothing much here to speak of. Although, it does have its charm of small town America.

89 students are studying at the seminary, which is also a 4-year college. Divine Word College Seminary is the only one of its kind in the entire country. The students here study ESL, philosophy, and cross-cultural studies. ESL students make a significant number of the student population. Less than 40 students are actually SVD candidates. The rest are sisters, priests, and candidates from other congregations. A large proportion are from Vietnam. The Society since last year has started to give scholarships to sisters and priests from Vietnam looking for an opportunity to study English and obtain a degree in the United States. The presence of these individuals have made the seminary more lively and unique in character. Surely, there is no other seminary in this entire country, or in this entire world for that matter, that has the characteristics seen here.

Most of the SVD candidates are Vietnamese Americans. But there are also students from other cultural backgrounds such as Sudanese, Caucasian, Indonesian, and Latino. In the last 35 years, Vietnamese Americans have constituted the majority of the candidates at this seminary. However, in the past the number of vocations have been quite higher than the present. The decrease in vocation is being felt throughout the entire country, and at the SVD seminary, it is no exception. However, with nearly 40 candidates any other religious congregation in this country would be envious of the SVD.

Last night I gave the students a presentation on my mission work in Thailand. I had pictures to go with the presentation. They seemed to be impressed by my work. Many students came up to me this morning and told me that they enjoyed what I told them, and some felt that they might even be interested in joining me in Thailand in the future. If this happened, it would still be quite a few years off. Still, it's nice to know that my presentation is making them think of the possibilities.

Mission animation is an important task for the formation of the students. It helps them to envision a future for themselves and give meaning to the sometimes tedious and often challenging academic responsibilities that they have to fulfill at the moment.

The seminary will celebrate Mission Sunday on the 18th of October. This is the one day of the year where the entire Church celebrates its call to mission as a church. It reminds every Christian of his/her responsibility to take part in God's work of preaching the Good News to the world. This year, I will be the presider and homilist at the celebration. It is a great honor for me because this celebration is one of the two major celebrations that the seminary organizes each year. In attendance will be the seminary community, guests as well as students who participate in the "come and see" program. It's important that I have a good message that speaks to their heart and mind and helps them to see more clearly that we all have a role in the mission of the Church.

I am happy to be here, to see that the Seminary is evolving and fulfilling its purpose in new and creative ways. I am happy to see that new generations of people are responding to the call to serve God and fellow human beings. I am happy that they still are attracted to the message that we have a responsibility to help the poor and the marginalized.

At this moment, nearly midnight, many of them are busy studying in their rooms. Some are congregating as a group in one of the classrooms to study as a group. A few are camping out in the library (where I am writing at the moment). This is midterm week for them.

There is much to do in the mission field. But the training starts here at this seminary where theory will eventually be put to practice.

Epworth, Iowa, 15 October 2009

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Looking back to first days in Nong Bua Lamphu

When I first came to Nong Bua Lamphu in April, 2008, this is what I wrote in my diary (below). It's rather interesting to look back and see your expectations and compare them to the present reality.


As of today, Thursday 24 April, 2008 I have arrived to my new assignment at the SVD built parish of St. Michael Archangel Church in Nong Bua Lamphu province exactly two weeks. I have celebrated two Sunday Masses and 12 weekday Masses. I find that day by day, I am gradually having to spend less time on looking over the various parts of the Mass as I gain more ability to make out Thai words quickly.

A challenging but a very beneficial activity that I am going through at this time is preparing a Sunday homily that lasts at least 10 minutes. The process of preparing a homily in Thai takes me about four days. The first day is to reflect on the reading. The second day is to write a rough draft by hand on paper. The third day is reserved for typing up the rough draft onto the computer. This is by far one of the most tedious things that one has to do as the Thai language has a total of 44 consonants and 32 vowels. The characters are spread all over the keyboard, and it takes great patience to punch the right keys to form the words on the screen. It takes me over three hours to type up a homily that I have already handwritten. Finally, I spend another day revising the homily in the hope that it achieves an acceptable degree of clarity and insightfulness. I was very happy when I have received feedbacks from parishioners that I preached well. When all that is done, I spend the days left over to practice on my delivery.

The reason I spend a great deal of time on the homily is because it is a great exercise in advancing my language skills as in many ways, I am still in a learning stage. The other purpose for why I spend a great deal of time on my homily is because I am trying to shape a series of messages that I think are important for the parishioners in Nong Bua Lamphu to hear at this time. That message is an encouragement for parishioners to take a more pro-active role in participating in church life and taking stewardship of the church that Br. Damien Lunders has spent a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources to have built up. It is now due time for the local community to take charge of this church, to see it as theirs, and to realize that the future of the parish community depends on their participation and sense of responsibility.

Nong Bua Lamphu is a very small parish. There are estimates that put the number of Catholic in the area at about 100 people. But the actual number of people who go to church regularly is small. My effort at this time is to encourage a sense of “mission” in the regular church going Catholics to be more active in inviting their friends and families to go to church.

My immediate goal is also to make small but tangible changes to aspects of the parish life, for example, introduce altar server, invite more people to participate in reading the Scriptures, encourage the parishioners to take charge of things such as decorating the church, and make clear various aspects of parish finances.

I also make an effort to invite the HIV/AIDS patients and staff from the hospice to attend daily mass, even though all but one are not Catholic. In fact, on some days, even four or five attend. There is one patient who has volunteered to come everyday to read the reading in Thai.

In the near future, Fr. Truc Phan and I hope to start an English program at the church as a way to attract more young people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to the church in order to make the church a more lively place and introduce various activities into the parish environment.

Unless there are change of assignments either from the SVD side or from the diocesan side, if my stay in Nong Bua Lamphu is a significant amount of time, I plan to initiate or participate in some ministerial work that would expose me more to the larger Nong Bua Lamphu community, such as social work or education.

On the side, I have initiated a Vietnamese language Mass once a month at a church in the nearby Udon Thani province for Vietnamese migrant workers who are very grateful that they are able to celebrate Mass in their mother tongue. Ministry with Vietnamese migrant workers in Bangkok and now in the Udon Thani Diocese is something that I have engaged in since I first came to Thailand, and is something I plan on continuing during my time serving in this country.

It is certainly too early at this time to evaluate the effectiveness or the value of my work in Nong Bua Lamphu and in the Udon Thani Diocese. However, I do hope that as I become more familiar with my working environment, more in tune with the issues and needs of the local church, and more fluent in the Thai culture and language, I will be able to initiate or participate in some meaningful ministries that would contribute to building up the local church as well as the SVD District of Thailand.


This is what I shared with someone three months later in July. At that time, I was thinking that there would be another priest to come work with me in Nong Bua Lamphu. But as it turned out, that would not be the case. I would have to work alone in this province.

July 2008

As of my writing this, it has been about a year and three months since I’ve studied and worked in Thailand. I spent a total of 8 months learning the language (5 months in school and three months on my own). I then moved to Udon Thani Diocese for a program of internship that was supposed to last six months. But three months into my internship, the church at Nong Bua Lamphu province found itself without a pastor because the present pastor was reassigned by his order to another part of the country. St. Michael Archangel church in NBL is a lovely small church that was built by Br. Damien Lunders, SVD and opened in 2002.

Although I haven’t finished my internship program, I approached the bishop and asked that I’d be sent to NBL to administer the parish, until Fr. Truc Phan, SVD who was still studying Thai in Bangkok was ready to take over the job. The bishop readily agreed because the diocese was already short of personnel. I moved my belongings to NBL in April, and now, I have been here for about three and a half months.

Looking back on the time that has gone by, I must say that it has been a very unexpected experience for me. Many things happened not according to what I had planned, but turn out to be the very things that speak of the great providence of God. I originally planned to study Thai for a year, but found out that I was itching to go into the “field” after six months into the experience. I felt I had enough language skills to do the work. So I asked my superiors to let me shorten the time of language program. They agreed, on the condition that I would take the Thai language proficiency exam given once a year in December. I took the test, and passed.

Once in Udon Thani, I also cut short my internship program because of an unexpected need in the local church. Through personal reflection and seeking advice from some people around me, I decided to take on the challenge.

Now, here in NBL, my aim is to help build this small parish into a meaningful place in the community and in the diocese. Because of the small number of parishioners and many changes of priest in a short time, the parish has been slow in developing, unlike the Mother of Perpetual Help Center and the children’s home, which have seen tremendous development in the past years. Catholics in the province still don’t go to mass regularly, and many do not attend mass at all. For various reasons, the diocese’s subsidy for the parish is rather modest, only 300 UAD a month for all church expenses including the pastor’s expenses. Sunday collections are also quite modest since over half of the church are children/orphans, teenagers, and manual laborers. The previous pastor managed to have a confirmation catechism class for a group of 5 teenagers, but the teacher is “on loan” from Udon Thani. The church has no organ, so the song leader uses a CD player to play recorded music to which the community sings along. The priest also has no altar servers.

Facing a rather unlively situation, my goal has been to do what I can in order to help the small parish become a place where people come to hear the Good News and to participate in enriching activities. People should know of the church as more than just “where the HIV/AIDS Center is located”. Certainly, the HIV/AIDS center is an essential and extremely significant part of our ministry in NBL, but the church itself needs to look for ways to serve other pastoral needs as well.

With this understanding in mind, I have taken some modest steps towards realization of this goal. First, I attempt to tailor my homily messages (which takes me quite some time to prepare in Thai) to help parishioners become more conscious of their Christian identity and mission so that they would take a more active role in the family, parish and in society as God’s witnesses.

Second, I have started programs that each parish must have, that is, catechism. Presently, the confirmation class continues to take place. The children’s catechism class has also been opened two months ago, with the help of another parishioner from NBL. This class has 19 students, who are from the children’s home run by the Sisters of Charity. Although, we encourage parents to send their children to this class as well. Two weeks ago, I have opened an adult catechism class, which I teach myself. This class has two adult women and one teenager. They are Buddhists but want to convert to Christianity. Beside catechism, I have also opened an English class for high school students in NBL in an attempt to put the church to the service of the greater community. My class now has 10 students, and I teach on Saturday and Sunday. More are interested in studying, but I have to restrict the number of students for practical reasons.

Third, I try to make small but tangible changes to way the church looks and feels by asking parishioners to be responsible for donating and setting up the flowers in the church each week; by having altar servers at every Sunday mass; by implementing correct liturgical practices in the mass, and by introducing people who come to mass for the first time or who has not been to mass for a long time to create a sense of hospitality. Hospitality is further enhanced after mass, in which snacks and drinks are served so parishioners have an opportunity for fellowship. However, the most important change to the “feel” of the church took place last Sunday when through some contacts with good-hearted Catholics in Bangkok, the church now has a second hand Yamaha electric piano that can replace the CD player as provider of music for the liturgy. For the first time, the community can sing their praises to God accompanied by live music played by the catechism teacher.

Finally, I am trying to work toward community building by seeking out parishioners. An ongoing project is registration of membership in the church. This project was started over a month ago, and will take some time to complete. I have made a number of visits to parishioners who do not go to church often, or at all. Since May, I have published a monthly parish newsletter that includes community news, articles and reflections. Lastly, being of Vietnamese descent, I am also seeking out Catholic migrant Vietnamese workers in the area who were unfamiliar with the parish. I hope that the church will become a place of support for these young workers who are trying to make a living far away from home.

As one can see, the situation of the parish is rather modest. And the work I am carrying out is also modest. With my limited Thai ability, it takes me longer to do many things, for example, preparing my homily, writing articles for the newsletter, or even writing a thank you letter to Thai benefactors. However, this is also an “excuse” or rather an “opportunity” for me seek help and collaboration from parishioners. But I have expressed to the parishioners that I am young, inexperienced, and I need a lot of help. However, I do hope and am confident that with every little thing done, it is done with God’s blessings and inspiration.

Soon, Fr. Truc will join me and take over the position of pastor of the parish. Fr. Truc has many talents and abilities that I lack in. I hope that with the bishop’s consent, I will be assigned as Fr. Truc’s assistant, and help him to make this parish into a small but lively witness of the Good News of Christ in NBL province.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A life of changes (looking back to first days in Udon Thani)

January 2008

Ever since I decided to join the Society of the Divine Word, on average, I have moved place of residence once a year – from one house to another, from one city to another, from one state to another, or from one country to another. Each time I moved meant a whole series of decisions of deciding on what to pack up, what to keep, what to discard, or what to give away. Sometimes, it wasn’t just about the material things such as books, clothes, or memorabilias, but also non-physical things like plans, relationships, and projects.

In 1998, when I graduated from Berkeley with my bachelor degree and decided to enter Divine Word College as a postulant, I put away my biochemistry books, canceled my plan of going to medical school, and headed for something that was going to be quite exciting in, of all places, Epworth, Iowa – the cornfield town of the cornfield state.

Then a year later, I moved to Techny for the Novitiate Year. After taking my first vows in 2000, I moved to Chicago for theology, then to Vietnam for the Cross-Cultural Program, then back to Chicago. I took my final vows in September, 2005 and was ordained to the priesthood in May, 2006. At this time, I again packed up my belongings. The task of deciding what to keep and what to discard was even more intense this time because my assignment was going to be to the Australian province. That meant going to a different country for a long time, and possibly forever.

But Australia wasn’t going to be my last stop, because from Australia, I was assigned by the Provincial to the mission of Thailand. So in February 2006, I made my way to Bangkok to start my Thai language study program. With the exception of a 2-month hiatus in which I had to leave the country because of visa complications, I have been in Thailand since.

But as I write this, I have to tell the reader that I am no longer in Bangkok. As of three weeks ago, I have moved to Udon Thani, a province in the Northeast of Thailand, near Laos, where I am in the process of adapting to the new environment, memorizing new names of people I meet and of places I go to, learning how to recognize the tones of the new dialect (which is very different from the dialect that I learned in Bangkok), getting to know the new customs, learning how to eat even spicier food than what I had in Bangkok, and sometimes…. just feeling very overwhelmed at everything that is happening to me.

But before anyone thinks that I’m settled down….Not yet. As I am only in the stage of being inculturated into the local church and environment, I am now staying at the cathedral in Udon Thani for a short time until a long-term work is decided for me. That means I expect to move again not too long from now. And wherever that is, is a question that I am praying will come to me more clearly by the grace of God.

Our SVD Thailand mission is a small mission. We have now only four people, two brothers, and two new priests (myself and another confrere studying Thai in Bangkok). My addition to the Thai mission is part of the plan of the SVD to expand our work in this country where there are only 300,000 Catholics in a population of 63 million people. But expansion is a tricky experiment in which trial and error can occur as we find directions for our work that meets the need of the local church as well as corresponds to the SVD charism.

And so in the midst of uncertainty and explorations, we depend on the Holy Spirit to help us recognize the path that we should venture down in order to respond appropriately to the mission needs and aspirations of the church in which we serve. Standing before many paths stretching themselves before my eyes, I wonder with the greatest sincerity about what I have been called to do in this country.

Last Saturday, two Vincent de Paul sisters invited me to a school in the village where they teach English to students on the weekend. I accepted the invitation and was allowed to be guest teacher for the day. Standing before a group of 35 students, speaking Thai and English, teaching the kids how to sing the Barnie song, making them laugh when I said some jokes, I felt like working with young people continues to be something that is always in my list of pastoral activities.

After the sisters took over, I went to sit on one of the benches. A 70 year-old grandmother came to sit down next to me. She held my hand in hers and said, “Father, you’re so cute. The way you teach make the kids laugh and enjoy learning. I hope you will come here again next time.” I thanked her for her kind words and asked about her life, if she ate well and slept well at night. “Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night,” she said. “You think about something, and then it’s hard to fall asleep.”

“Grandmother, you’re old already. You shouldn’t be thinking anymore,” I told her.

“How can you not think?” she said. “There are grandchildren to take care, and the children don’t have good jobs. Before, it was easy to find money. But now, there are too many expenses and no way to make money.”

Life is hard in the villages, but the people are friendly and good-hearted. And I think to myself, should I stay in the city or do I prefer the village? Both has its own needs. Here in the city, I have met a group of people who definitely has a need for a priest who can speak Vietnamese. That’s the young Vietnamese people from the central provinces of Vietnam who have made their way to Thailand and stayed illegally in order to work in restaurants, sewing shops, and other manual labor work. I met them when I was in Bangkok and I have met some since I’ve come to Udon Thani.

No one knows how many Vietnamese illegal workers there are in Thailand, but in Bangkok, when a Vietnamese language Mass was organized, up to 600 attended. But these Masses only happen once every two months because it is difficult to find a church that allows for the mass to take place. The main reason has to do with the illegal status of the Vietnamese workers, most of whom are young people in their teens and twenties. Virtually everytime that a mass was organized, someone was arrested on the way to or from church as they were stopped by the police to check for documents. Because of the fear of being arrested, many don’t go to church on Sunday. However, if there were a Vietnamese language mass, many would risk it because they longed to attend mass in their own language and to have an opportunity to meet with their friends.

During my stay in Bangkok, I have gotten to know many of these young people and have helped another Vietnamese priest who works with the community. Here in Udon Thani, there are also many and they also long for a Vietnamese language mass or to have a Vietnamese to hear their confession. In reality, many of these workers, after living in Thailand for a significant amount of time, can speak Thai quite well, but there is nothing better than using one’s own mother tongue for very personal things like confession and worship.

Before coming to Thailand, it never came into my mind that there would be illegal Vietnamese migrant workers in this country who needed me pastorally. I did know, however, that there are Vietnamese-Thai who migrated to this country since the the first half of the 1900s and even several hundred years ago, during the persecution of Catholics in Vietnam. Vietnamese-Thai grow up in an environment where being Vietnamese was discriminated. As a result, many hid their identity, took on Thai names, and tried to live as Thai. Freedom and citizenship have been granted to people of Vietnamese ancestry only over a decade ago, so the mentality to hide their identity is still prevalent in the Vietnamese-Thai consciousness. Vietnamese-Thai, having migrated here long ago, speak the kind of Vietnamese that we find in Vietnam a hundred years ago – that is the one who can speak.

The first time I met a Vietnamese Thai who was able to speak to me in Vietnamese, she greeted, “Chao ong cha.” I was quite surprised because normally, Vietnamese people only say “Chao cha”. The word “Ong” usually used for men who are older is not used in conjunction with the word “cha” which means “father”. After being greeted this way many times by Vietnamese-Thai, I decided to ask why was I greeted in this way, especially when I am only a little over 30 years old. I was told that this was how priests were to be addressed, “ong cha”.

A large percentage of the Catholic population in Udon Thani, and in Thailand are of Vietnamese ancestry. And among the priests and religious, there are no few Vietnamese. But the ones who can speak their ancestor language are far and few. But my coming to Udon Thani has also brought about some interest to the Vietnamese-Thai here, especially the older people who still use the language and like to be able to use it with a Vietnamese speaking priest.

At this moment of relating to my conferes and readers of my work and experience in Thailand, I can only say this much. Choices and options are many. There are much to be reflected over and to be decided upon. When I made my decision to come to Thailand, I came for the Thai people and I am resolved to work with the Thai people. But nothing ever is exactly the way I plan it. Before me, there are Thai people, Vietnamese- Thai, and Vietnamese migrants. Before me are three groups of people, all of whom I would like to serve, all of whom I would like to get to know, and I hope all of whom would welcome me into their midst. Is there a place to work, a position, or an environment that would allow me to be in contact with all three groups? It is something that I am wondering and praying over at this time.

Uncertainty is prevalent. But there is one thing that I am sure of, and that is, I am moving…always moving. Moving physically, moving spiritually, moving culturally, and moving emotionally. There are moments where English-Vietnamese-Thai all seem to try to come out of my mouth at the same time as I try to have a conversation with someone standing before me. There are moments where I am filled with hope one instant then anxiety the next. There are moments where I wish I could settle down to a long-term assignment one minute, then suddenly become so grateful that these constant changes have brought me into so many encounters, some of which would never be possible if I had only stayed in one place the entire time.

First thoughts

I have completed my first term as a missionary in Thailand and now I am back to Chicago for a short visit before I return to the mission field of Nong Bua Lamphu, Thailand, with my small church, my small congregation, and the looming question of how to turn this huge missionary field into a bountiful harvest.

Nong Bua Lamphu is one of Thailand's newest and smallest provinces. It's also one of the least developed provinces in the country. It is nestled in the northeast region of the country, surrounded by the larger provinces of Udon Thani, Khon Kaen and Leuy. Here, I am the proud pastor of the province's only Catholic Church, built 7 years ago by Br. Damien Lunders, SVD. Br. Damien is a Divine Word missionary, same as myself. In the province, there are only about 150 people who have been baptized as Catholics. Notice that I said baptized, not necessarily church-going.

The church is called St. Michael Archangel Church. It was built with the financial assistance of benefactors inside and outside of Thailand. It's a small church. If 60 people show up for mass, all the pews are filled. When I first came to the church in 2008, only about half of the church was filled. The church had no organ, no altar servers, no regular catechist, and no parish council.

But it's a nice looking church - simple, clean, well-kept and the grounds around it well-groomed. The person in charge of keeping the church in this admirable shape is Br. Damien himself. He's the "patriarch" of the church, so to speak. Ten years ago, Br. Damien came to Nong Bua Lamphu after many years serving in Papua New Guinea to expand the HIV-AIDS ministry that some Thai Catholics have begun. Br. Damien fund raised to build an orphanage for children with HIV, the Villa Marie Hospice for adults suffering from AIDS, and the Mother of Perpetual Help Center which provide AIDS education for the community and support for families with HIV.

The orphanage is located behind the church, just past a bridge that connects the two grounds together. There is a small stream that separates the two areas. On the banks of the stream there are many eucalyptus trees, banana groves and other plants which Br. Damien had planted. It's a lush environment and beautiful to look at when one wants to enjoy a bit of nature. In the orphanage, there are 23 children ages 6 to 15. The children are looked after by 5 sisters of the Mother Teresa congregation. The sisters come from India and the Philippines.

The Mother of Perpetual Help Center and the Hospice lies to the right of the church. A drive way separates the church from the center, which means that the two buildings are quite close together. Adjacent to the orphange is a "sala" an open hall used for activities and gatherings. It is called the St. Arnold and Joseph Sala.

Being surrounded by the orphanage and the MPHC, it is not surprising that our place is more well known in the overwhelmingly Buddhist community as the AIDS center rather than a Catholic church. It's also not surprising that our place has stirred up a lot of sympathy as well as apprehension from people in the community. Many people come to the orphanage to "tham bun" (make merit) on occasions such as birthday or death anniversaries of loved ones. But some avoid the church, even though they are Catholic, because they are afraid of getting infected with HIV from being in the same vicinity as people with AIDS.

So this is my mission field. I am the only priest serving in this province. I am busy in my mission work. Some people ask how could you be busy with such a small church and a small congregation? I am busy not from the amount of work available for me to do, but busy due to the amount of work that I have to create. Some priests are busy to fulfill obligations set out for them when they come into a new assignment. My business comes from the fact that I have to make things happen.

After several years in the mission field, I have finally decided to create this blog to share my experiences. I cannot write about everything in one sitting. There is too much to share because there are many thoughts on my mind. There are also many feelings in my heart. I create this blog to share these things - the pains, the joys, the struggles, the rewards, the blessings, and the challenges - everything that I encounter in my missionary life.

For those who wonder what it means to be a missionary and what is the life of a missionary like, I hope this blog gives you some ideas of what you're curious about.
(Photo: Stations of the Cross on the bridge conneting the church to the orphanage)
Chicago, 13 October 2009