Wednesday, November 18, 2009

7 years of grace

This year, St. Michael Archangel Church celebrated its church feast on 8 August 2009 to commemorate seven years since the church was consecrated as the first and only Catholic church in the entire Nong Bua Lamphu province. This was indeed a special occasion for us and was worthy of celebration.

A church feast is not simply a party where people gather to meet each other to eat and drink. It is first and foremost an occasion to offer thanks to God for every blessing that He has bestowed on His people. Second, it is an opportunity for the church community to celebrate itself and share the Christian joy with guests – both Catholics and non-Catholics – who come to join in the festivity. Third, it is an opportunity for the church community to evaluate its work in carrying out the Christian mission bestowed upon it by Jesus Christ and plan for the future.

It was with these multiple purposes that St. Michael Archangel Church organized its church feast this year. As the newly appointed pastor of this parish, I am pleased to share with you that in the past seven years, the church members, including The Divine Word brothers, the Sisters of Charity, and the laity, have been active in witnessing to the Good News among the people of Nong Bua Lamphu as well as people far and wide who are acquainted with the Catholic Church here. Whether it is the ministry of helping people with HIV/AIDS, youth education, or other pastoral work in the parish, the members of the local church have carried out their work with the purpose of making God’s love known to others.

By any standards, St. Michael Archangel Church is a small parish. But we are proud of our Catholic identity, and we are learning to live out our Christian calling with increasingly greater zeal. We have faith that with our humble efforts, God will continue to bless us and guide us so that with each day, we can discover new ways of proclaiming the Good News within our community and to the greater community around us, and therefore contribute to the mission of making God known to all the ends of the earth.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Unity in faith

Rising up on the side of one of Nong Bua Lamphu’s newest roads is St. Michael Archangel Church. With its dark red roof and egg shell colored walls, the Church is a tidy structure placed in a well maintained surrounding with trees, flowers, and lawn. Although neither the church nor the land space around it is large, few come into the place without noticing its cleanliness and simple attractiveness. With a full time gardener and assistants, both the church and the adjacent Mother of Perpetual Help Center are kept beautiful throughout the year.

While St. Michael’s Church is often “mistaken” as the HIV/AIDS Center for obvious reason (being so closely connected to the Mother of Perpetual Help Center and the Mother Teresa Children’s Home), few know that this is a place of a variety of activities with the participation of a variety of ethnic groups. It is perhaps the location of greatest diversity in Nong Bua Lamphu province.

St. Michael’s Church is the only church in the entire province that has both male and female religious working side by side in their respective ministries. The SVD brothers come from the U.S. while the Charity Sisters come from the Philippines and India. The pastor is a Vietnamese American who often gets mistaken for being Thai. As for the parish population, there are Thai, Vietnamese-Thai, Chinese-Thai and people from a whole host of countries including the Phillippines, Vietnam, the U.S., England, and Germany.

One of the greatest witnesses to the richness of the small St. Michael’s parish is the social diversity in the church community. In the Sunday pews, one can find religious, government employees, professionals, as well as students, manual laborers and children. Sitting side by side are families in the community, patients from the HIV/AIDS hospice and HIV orphans. Listening to the Scriptures together are both people who are Catholic and Buddhists.

In some ways it is remarkable that in a rather small church in a small province of Thailand, one can find such lively signs of God’s love and unity among the people. In this respect, St. Michael’s Church is a beautiful witness to God’s presence and His love as lived out by the people from various countries and backgrounds who come together to form this very distinct and special community.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A community of witness

Though it may come as a surprise to some, St. Michael Archangel Church is the first and the only Catholic church in the entire Nong Bua Lamphu province, NE Thailand. Nong Bua Lamphu is a relatively new province, less than 20 years old. It is also one of the smallest and least developed provinces in the country.

The church was consecrated in 2002. However, it was not until October 2008 that the parish had a full time pastor assigned for a period of five years. Previously, priests assigned to the parish could only stay for a short span of time, the longest staying two years. A total of six priests have passed through St. Michael. Fr. Anthony Duc Le, SVD the present pastor, is the seventh priest.

Needless to say having a full time pastor assigned for a significant period of time is essential to the development of the parish. Not only the pastor, knowing that he will be at the parish for a while, feels comfortable to start pastoral programs and initiate parish activities that have long term goals in mind, but parishioners also have more opportunities to join hands with the pastor to accomplish the various goals set forth.

Any church development can’t be done without the presence of a parish council. Moreover, a Catholic parish cannot go without essential activities such as various liturgical celebrations and feasts, catechism programs, youth groups and faith sharing activities. At St. Michael’s Church, parishioner participation is most visibly seen in such activities as families taking turns donating flowers to the church throughout the year, parishioners heading and contributing to fund raising efforts to finance activities, and the youth having a visible role in the actitivities of the church through their enthusiasm in serving in Mass. The faith and community life is further nourished by monthly gathering at parishioners’ homes for praying, scripture sharing, and food sharing. During advent, gatherings take place on a weekly basis.

In the beginning of 2009, the parish council adopted a year-long multi-pronged pastoral plan aimed at developing parish life as well as helping to make the Catholic Church an instrument for development and change in the larger community. As a result, a sense of mission awareness is gradually being instilled in the heart of mind of the church members as they try to become better witnesses to God among the overwhelmingly Buddhist environment in Nong Bua Lamphu. With grace and guidance from the Holy Spirit, development will certainly continue to take place at this Catholic parish, which though small in size, is performing a very important Christian mission in the community.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

a Buddhist monk, a Muslim, and me

I went to Vietnam
recently to visit my relatives. On my flight back to Bangkok, in the boarding line, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk stood next to me. We struck up a conversation. He said this was the first time he went abroad. His final destination was Myamar, the country to the west of Thailand. He was a little apprehensive about the trip since it required an overnight layover in Thailand and he didn’t know where he was going to rest. He also didn’t speak Thai.

I told him that once we get to Bangkok, which was about 7:30 p.m., I would ask the airport workers to see if there were a place reserved for Buddhist monks to rest in the airport since Buddhist monks often receive special treatments in public places. This is understandable since Thailand is an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation that has over 40,000 temples. Buddhism or rather the Buddhist way of life is ingrained in Thai people’s consciousness.
I stayed with the Buddhist monk at the baggage claim carrousel until he finally got his suitcase. He was one of the last ones to receive his bag. Afterward, we made our way through customs. Unlike the last time I came through this airport, the customs official did not call me for a radom check of my luggage. I assume it was because I was walking and talking with a man dressed in an orange robe.

We went out the door and through the lines of family, friends, hotel and company employees waiting for international passengers and into the elevator going up to the 4th floor. Here, I showed him where he would check in the next morning in order to fly to Rangoon, his final destination. I also approached an airport official to inquire about where the monk might be able to rest. The woman quickly went off to look into the matter. Seeing such a brisk response to our request, I was confident that this would be a simple matter. However, when she returned a few minutes later, she said that the place where our Buddhist monk could rest was inside the waiting area. This meant that he had to check in first. Unfortunately, his flight on AirAsia being the next morning, it was impossible for him to do so. We found that out after I went over the AirAsia counter to inquire.
The airport official told us that he might be able to rest in the prayer room on the third floor. So I led the monk downstairs to find this room. Along the way, we bumped into some airport guards and I asked for further directions. They pointed out the way. I asked them one more time just to make sure if the monk could rest there. The guards said yes.

Walking about 50 meters, I saw the sign for the prayer room. However, it turned out to be the Muslim prayer room. I imagined this would be a big room with not a lot of people inside. The monk could find some quiet corner to sit and rest. However, once we got inside, it turned out that the room was not too large. The monk proceeded to walk into an area behind separators. A man in his thirties who was sitting on a chair in the outside area saw us, stood up and proceeded to ask us where we were going. I explained to him the situation and how we were directed to come here by the airport officials.
The man who was a Muslim even though he did not wear the usual Muslim attire, told us that we could not come inside. I asked him if he were the one taking care of this prayer room. He said he was just a Muslim faithful coming there to pray. He explained to us that if we came in, we had to have the proper attire, had to do purity rituals, and to have the Muslim faith.

Since I was not a great scholar of the Muslim religion, I asked him if it wasn’t possible for the tired monk to just come in for a while for a bit of quiet rest since he was going to have an extremely long layover. He said no since it was against the rules of the religion. I insisted that perhaps some exceptions could be made to help someone who was in need. He said no. He asked me if he were to come into the Christian church wearing his Muslim attire, would it be possible? My answer was not what he was expecting. I told him he would be most welcome to come into my church wearing the things he described.

After the exchange, it was clear that it would be impossible for our tired Buddhist monk to have his rest in the Muslim prayer room. It was also clear to me that I had expected too much in thinking that a man don in Buddhist garbs could enter into a Muslim worship area and sit. It would certainly be difficult for other Muslims who come in to pray to not be distracted by this sight. Muslims are good people, willing to help those in need like any other, but they have strict rules about their worship space, and one has to accept their beliefs.
Although at the time, I was quite displeased that a stranger in need would not be received, even if he came from a different religion, as I thought more about the situation, I realized that every religion has some rules that it holds onto steadfastly and those outside of the religion will find it difficult to grasp or even to agree with. The Catholic Church itself holds on to a number of tenets that many can’t fully understand or appreciate. This incident is not going to be the incident that leads me to conclude that the Muslims are unwelcoming people or that the Muslim religion is an unwelcoming religion. Rather it tells me that I have a lot to learn about the Muslim and people of all religions need to look into themselves to see how they can learn to be faithful to their beliefs but at the same time welcome others into their midst.

In the end, I did find a place where our Buddhist monk could rest. After more inquiries, it turned out that a little beyond the Muslim prayer room, there was a number of CIP rooms (Commercially Important Persons). Next to these rooms was a smaller room reserved for monks and their novices. I led him there. No one was inside the carpeted room. There was a table with some chairs, no sofa. There was no furniture there that one could use for lying down. However, it was clean and quiet. Our monk was happy to have his rest there. Afterward, I bid him farewell since I had to catch a taxi into the city where I would rest at the Holy Redeemer Church in Bangkok. I handed the monk some Thai money since he said he didn’t have any of the local currency. The old monk thanked me for my good and blessed me. I arrived to the church at half past 9 p.m. It was one of the more interesting experiences I had at the airport.

Bangkok, 15 November 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Life from the mission field

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” In almost every young person’s life, sooner or later you will encounter this all important question from someone you know. It could be your teacher, your uncle or your parents’ friends who ask. And how you answer the question probably depends on what you are interested in at the time.

When I was in junior high school, I answered that I wanted to be an astronaut because at that time I was really into learning about the solar system. A few years later, I said I wanted to be a writer because by then I got into reading literature. When I was in high school, I thought about being a psychologist. Once I entered college, I set out to be a doctor. But in the end, I became none of those things.

I became a missionary.

Being a missionary is probably not on the list of careers choices for most of you out there. But it is probably one of the most challenging, rewarding, and adventurous things that one can do in life.

Every year, in October the Church celebrates Mission Sunday. This year, Mission Sunday takes place on October 19. On this occasion, I would like to share with you a little bit about what it is like to be a missionary. Hopefully, through this sharing, some of you will also think about this path for your own life.

After I was ordained as a priest in 2006 in Chicago, I was sent to my first mission assignment in Thailand. When friends and family heard that I would be serving in Thailand, they said to me, “How are you going to learn to read that weird language? They don’t even write with ABCs. The words are all swirly.”

I didn’t really know myself. But, what the heck. Why not give it a shot?

I stepped off the plane to a steamy, traffic-congested, and bustling Bangkok in early 2007 to begin Thai language studies. As it turned out, learning Thai wasn’t all that bad. The more I got into the language and able to speak and understand, the more I began to admire the beauty of the new language. I loved the way men used “khrap” and women used “kha” to politely end their sentences.

The more I understood the language the more I began to understand Thai culture and society. OK. I still don’t understand why Thai people so often show up late for appointments or put like 50 red chillies in all their food, but that’s beside the point. I appreciate the respectful way that Thai people put their hands in front of them to “wai” when greeting one another. I also understand how religion, superstition, and traditions are all woven into the people’s way of thinking. I also came to understand why so many of the Thai movies are of the scary genre.

After I finished my Thai language study, I began to venture into the mission field in a small province in the northeast of Thailand called Nong Bua Lamphu. This province has only one Catholic Church. It was built 6 years ago by another Divine Word Missionary named Br. Damien Lunders. Br. Damien also built the Mother of Perpetual Help AIDS Center next to the church.

In the six years that the church has been opened, there have been six priests working here. I’m the seventh. Everyone is hoping that I would serve here long enough to create stability for the small Catholic community here and help it to develop. In Thailand, out of 65 million people, there are only 300,000 Catholics – not even 0.5 percent of the population. In Nong Bua Lamphu province, we only have about 20 families who are Catholic. So I guess you can say the mission field is wide open.

I came to Nong Bua Lamphu on a hot April afternoon to take over the position of pastor here. I lived in a house next to an orphanage for children with HIV, ran by the sisters from Mother Teresa’s congregation. There are 21 children in the orphanage, 19 boys and 2 girls ranging in age from about 5 to 15. Recently, I moved to a new rectory built next to the church so that my work for the parish would be more convenient.

Next to the church is the Mother of Perpetual Help AIDS center and hospice. The center is run by Br. Damien. In the short time that I’ve began my mission work in this province, I have to say that it has made me realize that my decision to follow the missionary vocation, and choosing Thailand as the first country to which I would serve after taking my final vows and priestly ordination was a decision that must have occurred with God’s providence.

Here, I see what it is like for missionaries – Br. Damien, the Charity Sisters, and myself – to work serving our brothers and sisters who are suffering from HIV/AIDS. It is a highly challenging but ultimately worthwhile work. We missionaries know in our heart, that the work of caring for people who are poor, who are often left out of society, and are feared by others, is exactly the kind of work that we as Christians, and as missionaries should be doing.

In fact, it’s not just missionaries who feel this way, but all those who collaborate in this work feel the same. One woman named Wasana, who has the duty to take care of the patients in the hospice, which this year has been short of beds for all those who want to come for treatment, shared with me: “Right now, I am fully committed to serving the patients. I am proud to be able to help them regain their health and strength, so that they can return to live happily in society, in their family, and in the community. The smile of the patients is the source of strength for me to carry out my work.”

I understand what she means. When I first came to Nong Bua Lamphu, I saw Tum. He was also recently admitted to the hospice. He had lost use of his legs and they were very thin. He used his arms to move about. I said to Br. Damien, “Wow, he’s in a really bad shape.”

Br. Damien replied, “You should have seen him when he first came. He couldn’t even feed himself. We had to feed him ourselves. Now he’s eating on his own and moving about on his own. That’s already a great improvement.”

Through encouragement, a little pushing, and medical treatment, Tum began to gradually gain more strength. At first, he started training himself using a walker. Now he is able to walk on his own. As he becomes stronger and more confident, the smiles also appear more often as well. I think it is these smiles that provide the energy for people like Wasana.

Wasana, by the way, is not a Catholic. But almost everyday, late at night, she goes into church to pray, and always recommends other patients, whoever they are, to go to church to pray and ask for blessings.

Beside hospice work, the Mother of Perpetual Help Center continues to expand its other outreach programs in the province. Every week, there are HIV/AIDS meetings taking place with support groups. The center assists families with HIV/AIDS to have a means to make a living through the cattle project, through food assistance program, and education funds. At the beginning of every school year, children from HIV/AIDS families receive school uniforms. In May, 400 uniforms were distributed by the center throughout the province. And the HIV/AIDS education program that attempts to reach 40 different schools each year continues to be carried out in an active manner with the hope the this effort will contribute to a decrease in the rate of infection among the youth in the future. It takes five years to go to all the schools in the province.

As the pastor of St. Michael’s Church, which is so closely connected with the Mother of Perpetual Help Center and the orphan’s home, the issue of HIV/AIDS play an important part in the pastoral work of the church. I myself feel a tremendous sense of happiness when I see that nowadays, we have people who used to did not come to Mass on Sunday because they were afraid of being in the same vicinity as people with HIV, now come to church regularly.

I give God thanks when a young girl with HIV from the orphan’s home asked to learn catechism, to be baptized, and now comes up to read the Sunday Readings or serve at the altar without being afraid that others will make fun of her.

I give God thanks when teenagers in the parish declare that they are not afraid of people with HIV, and they don’t mind sitting and eating with their friends who are HIV positive.

I feel a great sense of gratefulness to God when I see in the church, people with HIV and without HIV sitting together, praying together, and coming up to receive Holy Communion or blessings together.

I feel amazed when a Buddhist man in the hospice said to me, “Father, on weekdays, if you don’t have anyone to do the readings in Mass, I can come do the readings for you.”

And another man, named Chai from Nong Khai province. He became infected with HIV because he spent many evenings looking for fun in the bars and brothels. But now, almost every afternoon, he would go to Mass. When it came time for communion, he would come up to receive a special blessing because he wasn’t Catholic. Recently, he left the center to return to his home in Nong Khai because he felt strong again. He came to say good bye to me, and I blessed him again to send him off. As I walked back into the retctory, I looked back and saw Chai standing in front of the statue of Jesus in front of the church to pray one last time before leaving. This man never became Catholic, but I feel that as a result of his stay in the hospice, he came to have faith in God, and felt that he could come to God for help and blessings.

As a priest and a missionary, it gives me a great joy to see that in so many ways, our small Catholic community in Nong Bua Lamphu is learning how to get over our fears and reluctances in order to live out our call as Christians to become true witnesses to the love and unity of God to our fellow Christians as well as to the larger community. In demonstating our love and acceptance for all people, I think there is no better way than to show to others the true meaning of being believers of Jesus Christ.

For me that is the real essence of being a missionary – making Christ known to others by our words and by our actions. In the end, most of the people I encounter in my missionary life will not become Catholic or even think about becoming Catholic. But I hope that in some ways, I have helped to make them know who Jesus Christ is and that I do what I do because of Him.

October 2008

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Log out of the chatroom and login to reality

It’s probably disturbing to hear, but nowadays many of us are having relationships not with people, but with machines! Sounds weird right? Well, you might be one of them. No, you say? Let me ask you this, when was the last time you yelled at your computer when it froze on you? Or when was the last time you thanked your computer because it did what you wanted it to do? I bet some of you even talk to your computer from time to time. No, I don’t mean using your computer to talk to a friend living in another city or country, but actually talking to your machine like it can really hear, understand, and sympathize with what you’re saying. The experts are finding out that many people relate to their computer like it has feelings, and are even afraid to make their computer upset!

Nowadays, it’s not at all uncommon that the computer is the one thing in our life that we spend the most time with. Forget about mothers, brothers, or friends, the computer has replaced our parents, our siblings, and our pals. Have a problem? Go on the internet and google an answer. Bored? Turn on the computer and play games. Need a friend to talk to? Join a chat room and talk to countless anonymous people all over the world.

The computer has become the main gateway to happiness and fun for so many of us. With that much time spent with something, it’s inevitable that we begin to form a bond with the machine. But of course, we don’t just have relationships with computers alone. There are plenty of other machines that we pay attention to as well. I mean, when you’re riding on the bus or the subway, you gotta leave the computer at home. So, now comes the Ipod. Ever since this little machine was invented, lots of things have changed. You get on the train for a ride and you’ll see about half of the people have their ears tuned in to what’s playing on their Ipod or some other MP3 player. The Ipod makes sure that no matter where we go, we’ll never be bored because we’ve got our favorite tunes playing at the press of a button. You can be sitting in a crowded bus for an hour ride and see that no one really talks to each other, but many have got their ears attached to headsets. And the ones who aren’t listening to music are staring unconsciously at signboards along the sides of the road.

I know. Some of you may argue that the computer and the internet “connect” people because you can send out an email to a friend on some remote island on the other side of the world in mere seconds, and you can Skype your pals in Europe for free, or get to know total strangers from Africa without having to ever set foot outside of your bedroom. All that’s true. And I grant you the internet is reaaaallly wonderful. I don’t know what I would do without it.

But let me ask you this. When was the last time you sat down and chat with your dad for an hour, even though you’d spend hours and hours at a time chatting with some total stranger who plays the same online game as you? When was the last time you played ball with your little brother, and used actual balls instead of the mouse or the joystick? When was the last time you made friends with a real person outside that you can see their whole face, body, and can shake hands with?

True. People on the internet are people too, even though a lot of times, they lie about their gender, their age, their height, where they live, and whether they’re axe murderers or not. But the way I see it, if you can’t see someone’s face and smell their perfume/cologne or their breath, then it’s still not the real thing. Maybe some of us prefer it that way. When we spend time with the computer and the people on the internet, we do it the way we like it. If we don’t like some one in chat room A, we click on to chat room B. We can be 15 years old and tell the other person we’re 25, and they’ll still believe us. We can do and say all sorts of things and get away with it. And if we don’t feel like talking anymore, just log out.

Spending time with the computer is way easier than spending time with our family or even our friends outside. When we talk to people that we know, we can’t be saying things that are obviously false. Outside, we deal with real people with real issues. We see them and they see us. We know them and they know us. When there’s something difficult, we can’t just log out and shut down. But that’s what life is about. That’s what’s real.

Unfortunately, nowadays too many of us don’t like the real thing. We prefer the artificial, uncomplicated, made up world on the internet. We laugh, cry, get angry, hug, and even give kisses to people online, using the various “emotion” icons on the computer. But at the end of the day, none of those things leave us a warm feeling inside that’s hard to describe as when two people are actually laughing with one another, hugging one another, and kissing one another. Poets write poems about a gentle hug or a romantic kiss, but you’ll never see them extolling the beauty of an online laugh, hug, or kiss. The fact is giving someone an online hug has sentimental value less than giving someone a piece of old chewing gum.

You’re probably saying you know this and you can separate the real world from the fake world. Still, the way I see it, most of us are really great at avoid having relationships with the people around us. When we’re at home, we lock ourselves in the bedroom, most likely doing something on the computer. When we’re in the car, we’ve got music blasting on the stereo. When we’re on the metro, we have our ears glued to Ipod.

But when we do this, we’re really missing out because we don’t let ourselves have the opportunity to enjoy the people all around us, and the random friendliness that may occur. Let’s say you ride on a bus and see a girl or guy that you think is really really cute. But if that person’s got his/her ears attached to headseats, how could you ever strike up a conversation and let that person know you like them? And if you happen to be the cute one, how can anyone tell you if you’re too busy listening to music. In the end, you might even miss out on a great boy/girlfriend. You’ll never get any of those feelings that come from holding hands or a hug, or a gentle kiss. All you have left are those silly Yahoo Messenger icons that represent supposedly what your emotions are.

If you don’t know by now, life is about having relationships with real people, the ones who live with you, who you see at school, on the street, in your neighborhoods, and at your work. If you cannot have good relationships with these people, then it’s useless to try having good relationships with people who live faraway or who you cannot even see. The peoples close to you should be the ones you invest your time and emotions in first. You find love and friendship through these people because you can get to know them the best and they also know you the best. They are the ones who make you feel the most pain, but also the greatest love. The people around you show real emotions with their face. And they also want to see the same from you. Life is not found in chat rooms. Friendship is not just about sharing an interest in the same online game. And love is not about YM icons.

There is much for all of us to discover. We can do it on the computer. Through the internet, we can go many places far and wide. But don’t forget that all around us, there are still so many things we have yet to see and understand, and there are many people for us to get to know. So you have to decide. Do you want to have real relationships with real people or are you happy spending your days and nights with just online games, chatrooms, and artificial hugs and kisses?