Tuesday, June 19, 2007

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?

Mother Dearest

Every month, Dân Chúa Úc Châu magazine gives me space for an article written for English speaking readers, especially those in the teen and young adult age group. Every month before the deadline, I sift through ideas in my head and try my best to come up with something that might be of interest to those who care to read what I have to say. To be honest, it’s not an easy task. There are so many things I could talk about, and yet I wonder if any of it is worth reading. It’s not that the topics that come to my mind aren’t important or relevant, but I keep asking myself: “Are they going to say ‘Jeez, there’s another article on so and so…how boring!’”

But this month, the month of May, I’m going to risk it. I’m going to talk about something that’s been said over and over before. I’m going to talk about….mothers. Still if we think about it, it never really gets old talking about someone who is as important to our life as the one who gives us life. The more we talk about them, the more we are able to appreciate who they are and what they do for us.

A while back, a newspaper in Vietnam sponsored an essay writing contest on the topic of “My Mother”. They received 1,199 responses from all over Vietnam. When the judges read all the entries, to their surprise, they found that the vast majority of the sons and daughters who wrote about their mothers had one thing in common. In over 90 per cent of the essays, the author expressed some regret that they had never recognized, appreciated, or did enough to repay for all the love and sacrifices that their mothers had done for them…until it was too late. When they discovered the true value of a mother’s love, she was already gone.

In life, one thing is for sure. It doesn’t matter who you are – you can be the Pope, the President of the United States, a priest, a burger flipper at McDonald’s, or a drug addict – you have a mother. For some people who are unlucky, they have lost their mother early in life. Others have mothers who don’t know how to take care of their children very well. But for most people, they have mothers who love them, sacrifice themselves for them, and adore them. And if the mother is lucky in life, she has children who adore her back.

But in Vietnamese, there is a saying that goes like this: “Tears never flow upward”. What this proverb means is that it’s always the parents who worry over their children. They stay up at night trying to figure out the best ways to take care of their children. They lose sleep when their children become sick or get into trouble. They work two or three jobs to buy the things that their children need or want. But hardly is it ever the other way around. We children sleep soundly at night without knowing what our mothers and fathers are doing. When our parents get sick, we don’t sit and worry like the way they do for us. Tears always flow downward!

I still remember vividly a bittersweet memory that I have with my mother. When I was about 13 years old, my older brother got into a big argument with my father. My brother decided to take his clothes and move out of the house. My mother couldn’t stop him from doing this foolish thing. But her heart ached for him. And when her heart ached, she would sing. She sang songs about a mother’s love for her children.

Ever since I was small, I had heard my mum sing on many different occasions. She sang to lull me to sleep. She sang in church. She sang at wedding receptions. I remember my mother had a good voice. And whenever she sang “Lòng mẹ bao la như biển thái bình dạt dào,” from the sound of her voice, I could feel in my heart that she meant every word.

So when my brother left the house, my mother comforted herself by singing these same songs. One day, she asked me to give her a cassette recorder. Back then, we were still using cassette recorders, and CD players were just becoming popular. She told me to push the record button, and she started to sing. She poured her heart and soul into that tape recorder that afternoon, as I sat and quietly listened to how painful it was for a mother to have to stand and watch her son make mistakes in life.

I have no idea what I did with that cassette tape. We probably threw it out the trash when we did spring cleaning, or moved house. But sometimes when I think about that tape, I regret so much that at that time I did not see how valuable it would be for me.

There are many things that our mother offers us but we have a hard time seeing because we don’t think it’s really important. When she buys us clothes, we don’t wear it because it’s the wrong style and our friends would laugh at us. When she hugs us in public, we get embarrassed because we don’t want to be seen as mama’s boy or mommy’s little girl. When she reminds us to do our homework so that we will have a better future than her, we call it nagging. When she gives us advice with some problems we’re facing, we call it meddling in our business.

Last week, I received a letter from my mother in Orange County, California. It wasn’t just an email, or a Yahoo Messenger or MSN message, but an honest to goodness letter written by hand on white paper, sent through airmail with stamps on the envelope. In her letter, my mum wrote:

I wish that you will always learn good and right things from the people around you, because you are still young. You are new to living in the world, with little experience. So you have to try to learn from those who are above you. I share with you what is in my heart, but as I write this, I wonder if you would think…. ‘I already know, you don’t need to remind me….’ Still, it is a mother’s way to remind and give advice. Perhaps one day in the future, I will not be able to hold a pen…or will not have an opportunity to speak. So whenever I am able to speak I should do it, don’t you think?What my mom said in the letter is very true. It is something we don’t think about or don’t even like to think about, but there will be a day when there will not be any letter, any advice, any reminders from mum. And when that happens, even if we long for any word, even a little ‘nag’ we’re not going to get it.

If in over 1000 essays about mothers, over 90% of the author expressed regret at not having done enough to show appreciation for their mothers until it was too late, I think chances are very high that each of us will also be included in that number. In a way, it’s almost impossible to not have regret. After all, considering how much our mother do for us, can anything that we do ever be enough to repay her? It’s inevitable that we’ll end up wishing that we could have said something more or done something more.

Still, regrets don’t have to be absolute. For me that’s what I am trying to do. I live half the world away from my mother now, but daily I think about her. I pray for her, and whenever I can, I give her a call. Even now, as a priest, and as a missionary, the encouragement, the words of comfort, the prayers, and the advice from mum, they are all important to me. I don’t think it really matters in life who you are, you can’t go wrong if you’re willing to listen to your mother just a little bit more.

So, this is my take on what mothers are like and how we should be with our mothers. I hope this short article inspires you to give a little bit more thought about your relationship with the woman who gave you life. So the next time, when you see your mother wipe the sweat off her eyebrows, when you see her kneel on her knees and pray the rosary, when you see her pull into the driveway from grocery shopping at the supermarket, when she scolds you for not having done the dishes on time, when you see her crash down on the sofa after a full day working at the nail salon, you’ll see and know and understand that, she’s doing all of that for you. And then you’ll remember to thank God for having a mother like that in your life.

Young People Also Care

It was the eve of Tết Nguyên Đán 2007, and the major streets of Sài Gòn were full of people, especially the streets in District 1 like Đồng Khởi, Lê Lợi, and Nguyễn Huệ where the New Year Flower Festival was taking place. Even though many people living and working in Việt Nam’s largest city had already gone to their home provinces to celebrate Tết with their family, on this night, Sài Gòn still seemed as bustling as ever.

I had been assigned to mission in Thailand, but was fortunate enough to be able to drop by Việt Nam during this most sacred holiday to celebrate with relatives and friends. I could not resist joining the crowds of Saigonese, mostly young people, as they made their ways down the various streets to bring in the Year of the Pig. I took a friend on the back of a motorbike that I borrowed from my cousin and we navigated through the chaotic city streets to take in the festive air all around us. But our fun could only last until 11 o’clock. Because at this time, I had made an appointment with a group of young people to help them do something very important.

This group of young Saigonese knew that on a night like this, while most people were making merry with family and friends, there were in fact many people in the city who had to go hungry, who had no one to share the holiday joy with, and had no one to wish them a happy and prosperous new year. Through their connection with an overseas charity group, they managed to have the fund to buy gifts that they would distribute to people who were wandering the streets late at night because they had nowhere to go. It was hoped that these small gifts of food and sweets would bring a little bit of joy to these people who were so miserable.

At 11 o’clock, the members of the group gathered at Thảo’s house in Tân Bình District. The leader of the group distributed the gifts to everyone present and divided up the ‘territories’. One group would go to District 1, another to District 4, and so on. I was assigned to the group that would distribute the gifts to the people in Gò Vấp District. The young people, two for each motorbike, with bags of gifts in hand, started to take off to their assigned destinations.

From Lê Văn Sỹ street in Tân Bình District, I and my companions made our way out to Trường Sơn, then to Nguyễn Thái Sơn, then to Bến Hải. At first, we could not find anyone to give the gifts to. We rode around for nearly an hour and the two large bags I had on my motorbike were still full. Khiêm, who went with me on my motorbike said anxiously, “I hope we don’t have to take these gifts home.”

I myself became a bit impatient. It was nearly one o’clock and I was getting a backache from riding around. But just as our worries peaked, we spotted a man wandering aimlessly on the street, his head in bandage. He had just come out of a nearby hospital. We stopped and inquired what happened. He told us he had been selling vé số, but was stopped and beaten up by a gang of men, no doubt gamblers or drug addicts. They took his money. He had gone to the hospital emergency room. He was told that he needed a scan, but he had no money. So they bandaged him up haphazardly and let him go. But he had nowhere to go, and no money to treat his wound. In the pocket of his worn out shirt, a stack of lotto tickets remain unsold. We gave him two portions of the gifts and an extra 100.000 đồng, but that was hardly enough compared to what he really needed.

Just as we turned the corner, we spotted four elderly people walking one behind the other. From afar, we could tell that their clothes were torn and ragged. I made a U-turn and stopped by their side. We greeted them and they stopped to return the greetings. Their accent told us that they were not Vietnamese but belonged to one of the ethnic minorities. From faraway, they looked poor, but when we saw them close up, they were simply pitiful. Parts of their hands were missing, parts of their feet were missing, and parts of their faces were missing. They had bandages in numerous places. These people were stricken with leprosy. We did not have time to ask where they were going and why they were wandering the streets. But we offered each person our small gift, gift that they could not accept with their fingerless hands, but had to receive with their old nón lá.

After the ‘dry spell’ of not meeting any poor people on the streets for nearly an hour, we came upon one after another after another – people who had no place to go or wherever they were going was not much to look forward to. At two in the morning on the day of Tết, a blind man was still holding his hat out begging in front of a Buddhist temple. A group of people were sleeping on the cement steps of a store. An old cyclo rider was still on the street corner waiting to be hired. And there were many others just like them. Our fear of having to take the gifts home turned out to be our disappointment and sadness at not having enough packages to hand out.

I have now left Việt Nam for my mission in Thailand, but since then I have been thinking a lot about this New Year’s Eve night. Even though I related mostly about the poor people that we were looking for and trying to bring a bit of happiness to, these days I am not thinking so much about them. As I write this article for the young readers of Dân Chúa Magazine, I am thinking more of the young friends in Sài Gòn who spent their New Year’s Eve in a vastly different way than most people in the city.

On that night, while everywhere you went in the city, you can see people having parties, sharing in drinks, congregating in joyous places, there was a group of young people who set their priority somewhere else. And that place was the dark corners of the city where the homeless slept, the cold streets where the poor wandered with no particular place to go, and the cement benches where the downtrodden sat to rest but had nothing to wait for.

These young people of Sài Gòn could have easily gone out to have fun at one of the many places that their peers were congregating in the city. If they had, no one would have complained or questioned them. After all, it was the eve of Tết, the biggest holiday there was in Việt Nam. They could have easily chosen another day to distribute the gifts. After all, tomorrow the poor would still be with us. Or the next day, or the day after that. There would never be a shortage of poor people. Instead, these compassionate young people felt that it was most meaningful if they shared with the poor, even if only in a modest way, during the first minutes and hours of the New Year. They wanted to bring just a little bit of joy to these miserable people during these sacred moments.

In recent years, young people in Việt Nam, and for that matter, young people all over the world continue to be the target of much anxiety, discomfort, and restlessness for parents, teachers, and leaders. Teachers worry that their students will go down the path of drugs and alcohol. Parents are afraid that their children will become addicted to internet porn. Leaders are afraid that young people can’t be responsible for the fate of the country in the future. As a priest, I have some of the same worries. Yet, when I consider the group of young people that I was lucky enough to share a brief time with on New Year’s Eve in Việt Nam, I feel much more optimism and greater peace of mind.

I decided to write this article because I believe that this sort of awareness, compassion, enthusiasm, and good-will exhibited by this group of young people does not have to be rare, isolated, and extraordinary. Instead, it can be very widespread and routine. It is my hope that by writing about them, the young people who read this article will become ‘infected’ by their spirit and display this spirit in your own family, in your own community, and in the entire world.

Graduation Address at Catholic Theological Union, 2006

NB: Đây là bài thuyết trình của tôi trong buổi ra trường tại Trường Thần Học Liên Dòng ở thành phố Chicago, USA tháng 5, năm 2006.

Distinguished guests, professors, family, friends, and fellow graduates, tonight’s event marks the conclusion of an admirable intellectual and spiritual undertaking by all of us. Perhaps in the imagination of esoteric minds, it is difficult to determine whether this ceremony symbolizes the end, the beginning, the end of a beginning, or even the beginning of an end. However, I would like to relate a story that I learned as I began my education in the first grade to make meaning out of something that looks like the end of a long journey and the beginning of perhaps an even longer one.

This is a legend that all Vietnamese first graders learn in school. In around 250 BC, Vietnam was being attacked by foreign invaders. So the king sent messengers everywhere to find someone who could drive the invaders out.

In the village of Phu Dong lived a couple, who had been married for a long time but had no children. One morning, on the way to the rice paddy, the woman saw an unusually large footprint in the soil. Surprised, she put her foot on it. Soon after this she got pregnant and later gave birth to a boy, whom they named Giong. Three years had passed, but he could neither sit up, nor could he say a word.

One day, the king's messenger came to Phu Dong. Hearing the messenger, Giong suddenly sat up and told his parents to invite the messenger in. Giong asked the messenger to tell the king that he needed an iron horse, armor and an iron rod to fight the invaders.

So the king gathered all the blacksmiths in the country together. The villagers brought everything that was iron. And they all worked day and night to make a huge iron horse, a large armor and a long iron rod.

In the meantime Giong said he was hungry and wanted to eat. So his parents brought him all the rice they had. But it didn’t last. The boy ate and ate and ate. As he ate, he began to grow more and more. The villagers had to bring their rice to him, and cooked day and night to feed the boy.

When the iron horse, the armor and the rod were finished, Giong stretched his arms, stood up, and transformed into a giant. He put on the armor, seized the rod, and quickly mounted the iron horse. The horse roared like thunder and breathed fire from its nostrils.

When he saw the enemies, Giong sped forward straight into to the invaders. The fire from the nostrils of the iron horse burned many of them to death. Giong killed the enemies, striking them with his iron rod. When the rod broke, Giong pulled scores of bamboo trees from a nearby forest to fight the enemies.

After defeating the invaders, Giong rode his horse up Socson Mountain, where he removed his armor and disappeared into the heaven. People called him since Thánh Giống, “Thánh” meaning Holy. A temple in his memory can still be found not far from the place where he ascended, and every year there is a festival to honor Giong.

Fellow graduates, tonight, after our names have been called, and the diplomas have been handed out, all of us are ready to embark on the journey to put into action the things we have theorized and debated about from the comfortable seats of our classroom.

Whether we like it or not, the years of being cradled at CTU have come to an end. Countless people have garnered the effort to prepare our horse, armor, and rod. It took the dedication of families and religious communities, superiors and professors, friends and even entire parish communities, to give us our horse and armor. It took the strength of Paul, Peter and John, Aquinas and Bonaventure, Rahner and Ratzinger, and countless others to give us our iron rod. We have been fed and clothed with knowledge, thoughts, traditions, experiences, and emotions of an entire village of grandmothers, farmers, scholars, refugees, immigrant workers, and martyrs.

So we embark on our journey as giants, even if only miniature giants, not through anything we’ve done on our own, but thanks to all that others have done for us. As I remember the story from my childhood, I am reminded of Isaac Newton’s declaration: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I’d like to think that the giants envisioned by Newton are not only those whose legacies have been safeguarded by the written annals of humanity, but also those whose lives and achievements can only be witnessed by the earth and sky between which they move. Yet their impact upon others was no less profound. I am certain that each of us here can easily recall such figures in our lives if given only seconds to reflect.

And so we march forth, not just tackling the issues and problems of our whim and passions, but confront those things for which we have been prepared and sent. We survived and grew big on the rice of an entire village. So upon crossing the threshold that separates the learning from practice, theory from reality, and what might be from what is, we are responsible for fighting the battles of our martyrs and of our mothers. We fight the battle of scholars who saw a grander vision of how things could be. We fight the battle of farmers who desire nothing more than to till their land. And we fight the battle of refugees who long to find a place to call home. All the while, we are conscious that we are neither the first nor the last to struggle for justice, to preach peace, to proclaim God’s mercy, or even to die for our conviction. And how we engage in our mission is but a measure of all that has gone before us and an indication of what might be after.

What happens when all is done? Returning to the story, we see that our hero Giong galloped up Soc Son Mountain, where he took off his armor and disappeared. He did not come back to Phu Dong Village to obtain his reward, to lead a life of luxury, or to be honored with titles. The last image that anyone saw of this remarkable individual who was fed and armed by the villagers of Phu Dong was his back as he disappeared into the heights of the mountain, leaving behind on the soil only the imprints of the feet of his giant horse.

My fellow graduates, let us set out on our journey to do the things entrusted to us by our people and our God. And when all is done, Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, the God of Ishmael, the God of Ghandhi and the God of all the Asian martyrs. Let us leave behind nothing but distant sounds of our footsteps and the fading traces of our footprints. In the end, all that is left is joy, for how beautiful 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!"

Thank you and may God bless each and everyone one you!

Lost in the high

Behind the gray walls of a drug rehab center in Saigon, Vietnam, 25 young men were undergoing their second day of detox. All were heroin addicts, some as young as 16 years old. All were city boys, many of whom started on ‘hàng trắng’ because they wanted to be seen as ‘dân chơi’ and ‘sành điệu’ by their friends. They came from different family backgrounds, some poor, some rich; but on this second day when their bloodstreams had run dry of heroin, all were suffering from the effects of withdrawal – excruciating pain, hot and cold sweats, sleeplessness, nausea, and the horrible feeling of ‘dòi bò’ in which it felt like there were worms crawling inside their very bones. One boy who needed a lot of medicine to lessen the pain became delirious from side effects. He kept stripping off his clothes and staggered around the room, his naked body were marked by numerous tattoos that testified to the kind of life he’s had.

I came to the bedside of Tuan, who was groaning from the pain that surged in his body. Normally, Tuan’s day consisted of two ‘cử’ of heroin – one in the morning, and one in the evening. But today, he had none. When he saw me, he moaned, “Anh ơi, em đau quá!”

I reached out to hold his hand, only to find in his sweaty palm a folded strip of paper containing the 15 Mysteries that people used when praying the Rosary. “My mum gave me these,” he said. “Can you read them to me?”

I took the wrinkled paper from his hand and started to read. Half way through the Our Father prayer, tears started to well up in Tuan’s eyes and rolled rapidly down the sides of his face onto the white hospital bed spreads. “It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve stepped inside a church,” he said under his breath. “Why’s that?” I asked.

Tuan turned onto his side facing me, readjusted the saline solution bag being administered on his arm, and recounted his story. For the first three years, when he had embarked on the adventure with heroin, he was rebellious and having too much fun to think about church or going to confession. But the fun didn’t last. He got arrested for pushing heroin and was put in prison for the next three years. After he got out, he found his ways back to heroin. Sometimes church entered Tuan’s mind, but suffering from guilt and the firm grasp of heroin, he couldn’t get himself to go to Mass. And when he did, he only stood leaning against the fence on the churchgrounds. As close as he was to Jesus waiting for him beyond those walls, Tuan could not find his way inside. He was lost and trapped in his world of grabbing purses and mobile phones from unsuspecting people on Saigon’s chaotic streets, deceiving friends and family, and endless searching for the next heroin high.

In our world of several billion young people, Tuan was only one of countless more who had lost their ways and didn’t know where to go next. He was pushed, pulled, and ravaged by fun that turned into suffering, highs that became dark abyss, and rewards that became punishment. From the streets of Saigon to the housing projects of southside Chicago, from the high school classroom of Tokyo to the suburbs of Sydney, young people are turning to clothes and car, internet porn and premarital sex, crystal meth and heroin to fill up their days and nights. And few realize that these things are only fun until something goes awry – an unwanted pregnancy, a deadly accident, or an overdose.
But those who do find themselves struggling to resist the current sweeping at them with tsunami strength force. That’s why we can’t help but ask ourselves the question: When we are being tossed in this world of a million attractions, all promising to be the thing that we need and want above all else, which way do we go?

And what if we refused to listen to any of the messages bombarding our ears and eyes like email SPAM that won’t go away, which way do we go?

And if we refused to get caught up in material things and short-lived amusements, which way do we go?

My experience with Tuan in the Saigon rehab center keeps telling me that he had the right idea when he decided to make his way to the front gate of the church. He knew that there was something beyond those church doors that could save him from the nightmare that was his young life. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough faith, confidence, or courage to take those heavy steps beyond the fence, to walk inside the church, where he would encounter the only person who was powerful enough, who was loving enough, who was merciful enough, and who was forgiving enough to set him off on an entirely new way of life. And that person was Jesus Christ.

Tuan didn’t know that if anyone were able to heal him of his pain and suffering, it would have been Jesus. And he didn’t realize that if anyone were going to free him from his heroin addiction, it would also have been Jesus.

The way to Jesus was never meant to be such a difficult path. It is as easy as walking into a church. But Jesus isn’t just waiting for us inside the church, He is also reaching out to us through friends and strangers, whispering to us in the middle of a sleepless night, and listening to us every moment we care to pray to Him. The way to Jesus is so near, yet can be so far. But He is far only because we choose to ignore Him at every turn, shut our ears to every mention of Him, and close our minds at every thought of Him.

Only one day after I read to Tuan the Our Father prayer, he jumped the gate of the rehab center and escaped, still in his white hospital clothes. The withdrawal symptoms were too much for him to bear. And my guess is that once he made it past the gate, his next stop would be some place where he could get a desperately needed fix. But Tuan wasn’t the only one who jumped the gate during those days, a few more followed suit. By the end of the 10-day detox program, only 20 of the original number remained. Of those 20, over 10 tested positive for HIV – the virus that has made its way into the body of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, most of whom are from the ages of 15 to 30.

I still often wonder what happened to this young man who held on to my hands and cried one day, only to flee the center the next. If he is like many of his peers, he might have been arrested and sent to government camps, or perhaps caught HIV from sharing needles and would eventually die of AIDS, or suffer an overdose in some dark karaoke room or under a dirty bridge.

I never heard from Tuan again after that. But in my heart, I always carry a small hope that Tuan would no longer just lean against the fence looking towards the church but didn’t dare to take the potentially life-changing steps inside. I hope that he would somehow work up the courage and determination to find his way to Jesus. And if he were to choose that way, it would make all the difference!