Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Outside Our House

Saigon is a city unlike any other place in this world. Some people really like it, and some really hate it. It’s bustling, it’s chaotic, it’s full of noise and dust, it’s filled with motorbikes and cafés. People from all over Vietnam come to this city to make a living, to find opportunities, and to look for success. Some do, many don’t.

As a missionary, I have the opportunity to go to many places to witness the Good News of God to the people, especially those who are suffering from poverty, oppression, and illness. Five years ago, I was sent to Vietnam where I worked with young heroin addicts in this city. While in Saigon, I lived in a house facing a narrow but busy street in Phu Nhuan District. The roaring of motorbike engines starts early each day, about five in the morning, and lasts until late into the night. The house was 2.7 meters wide, 16 meters long, and three stories high. It was as narrow as the street on which I lived. From the livingroom, sometimes I would sit and look outside. Through the glass front door, in only ten minutes, the whole of humanity seemed to pass by.
A little boy made his way across the door, in his hand was a stick used for tapping on a piece of bamboo to create a rhythmic sound. That sound, everyone knew was the sound of hủ tiếu gõ. And the boy who produced that sound came from Quảng Ngãi Province in the Central Region. This area is one of the poorer areas of Vietnam, some families only make about 50 cents a day. Boys from such poor families would come to the city to sell hủ tiếu by wandering the alleyways, tapping on the bamboo piece to let the people know. If anyone called for a bowl of soup, he would bring it to them. Wandering the streets and alleyways from afternoon until late at night, he earned a mere 60 cents in wage each day.
Then a woman pushed a cart by – filled with glass bottles, plastics, cartons. She called out “Veee chaaai, bán”. Wandering the streets all day and late into the night collecting recyclable materials, she made about $1.30, which she would try to save to send back home in a faraway village in the North to raise her children.
Then a young man rode a cart selling vegetables; yet another selling mangoes, or durians, or bananas, or oranges – depending on what season it was. Then a crippled man made his way down the street pushing himself on a wooden board with wheels attached. He was going to a nearby church to beg as people came out of mass.
Then there was the endless parade of people, young and old passing by selling lottery tickets. One nine year old boy had been selling tickets for almost a year. One day, he asked me to buy some tickets. I told him I didn’t like to play lotto, but I’d give him some money instead. He refused, telling me that he wanted to sell lotto tickets, not beg for money. After all, as poor as he was, he still had his pride and dignity. One old woman making her way around the neighborhood with the help of a walking stick always had the same call: “Vé số độc đặc, chiều nay chiều nay” which meant: “Grand prize lottery happening this afternoon”.
Of course not everyone who passed by my front door was poor. There were plenty of people zooming down the chaotic street on high-priced motorbikes and expensive imported cars. There were tons of young people showing off trendy hairstyles and flashy clothes to match. They were on their way to cafés that sold drinks the price of a laborer’s daily wage. At night these same young people would be seen at clubs where Hennesy could be seen on virtually every table. But despite all the signs of people becoming more well-off, there were plenty to remind me that Vietnam still had a lot of poor folks.
I witnessed scenes of poverty without fail every time I looked out my door, and if anyone were to give any thought at all about what all this meant, they would feel pretty overwhelmed and helpless – so much poverty and hardship, and so little that we could do about it.
In the face of overwhelming amount of problems, it’s easier for us to lock our door, and pull the blinds so that we don’t have to deal with the relentless scene of poverty in front of our eyes. It’s a way for us to protect our sanity, living in this painful world.
This month, Dân Chúa Magazine invites us to look at the situation of the Catholic Church in Vietnam. I would like to take this even further for the readers of Modern Talkings. How about taking a look at our relationship with the poor people in our homeland, which is also the homeland of our mothers and fathers? For better or for worse, Vietnam is where it all started for us. It is where our fathers and mothers were born and raised. It is where many of us were born. And it is where many of us have visited, or heard stories about. Without this country and all that happened to the people who lived in it, we would not be where we are today.
We don’t live in a poor country now, although this doesn’t mean that around us there is no poverty. Yet, we are also asked to look further than we usually do. First we start by looking outside our front door. Then we look to our neighborhood, then to our homeland, and then to the entire world. If we don’t care to look, then we cannot see what it is that need our compassion and help. If we don’t care to look, then we cannot see where our energy and talent are needed and what is desired of us. Compassion for others begin with us being attentive to the need of others, especially those who are poorest and weakest. We are asked to share what we have with our brother and sisters, starting with the ones immediately around us.
Outside my front door in Vietnam, there was a sandwich stand. In the morning, I often saw a pair of college roommates from the countryside come there to buy sandwiches for breakfast. They always bought the cheapest one, with the least amount of meat. Then one morning towards the end of the month, I saw them as usual. One of them ordered his sandwich. But the other didn’t. So his friend asked him, “Why don’t you get your sandwich?”
He stammered, “I…uhh…I’m not hungry this morning.”
His friend understood and didn’t ask further. He took his sandwich, split it in two, and handed a half to him.
“Here, let’s share this,” the friend said, smiling.
The two friends, each took a portion, and ate their halves of the sandwich as they walked side by side to school.
I was very moved by how the friends treated one another. Perhaps this incident wouldn’t have been so memorable to me had the friend who could afford the sandwich gave away his sandwich, or simply taken out his money to buy another sandwich, so each of them would have one. I suppose I remember it because the poor college student took his small sandwich and broke it in two, so he could share with a friend. It is a beautiful gesture of sharing what we have with others even though we don’t have much to offer.
All of us are asked to share what we have with those around us. We share with the people in our family and in our school. We share with the people in our city and in our homeland. And we share with the people in our world. What we ought to do first is to take a long and hard look and what is around us, then after that take a long and hard look at what we have, whether it is energy, talent, money, or anything that God has given for us to use. When it comes to sharing with others, there are a million and one ways to do so if we are sincere enough, and creative enough.
Let us then start by not just sitting comfortably inside our livingroom looking out to the street, watching the world go by apathetically. Let us open the door of our house, the door of our heart, and run to the side of the suffering people outside our doorsteps, in our homeland, and for that matter all over the world.

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