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

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