Monday, March 10, 2008

A Life of Changes

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.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Making the Right Choice

It was a normal high school lunch break in sunny Southern California. In the flag pole area by the administration building, the popular guys and girls were hanging out with each other. Over by the arts building was the more withdrawn group of students, usually dressed in black T-shirts of various rock or heavy metal bands. And towards the history building was the hang out for Asian American students. I had just come out of a school club meeting, and on my way to the restroom. I was a senior, my last year of high school.

As I made my way between the crowds of people, I bumped into Jenny, a Vietnamese friend in the 11th grade. She was crying.

“Hey, what’s up? Why are you crying?” I asked.

She hugged me tightly, then said, “I need someone to talk to?”

“Yeah, what’s the matter? You can talk to me. Do you want to go somewhere?” I tried my best to sound sympathetic and supportive.

“Can we go in the back of the science building?”

“Ok, let’s go,” I said forgetting that I needed to go to the bathroom.

As Jenny and I found a quiet place away from the crowd and sat down on the grass, I asked again, “Tell me what’s going on with you. It must be something serious because I’ve never seen you like this.”

“Tony, it’s serious. Promise me that you wouldn’t tell anybody,” Jenny said in between sobs.

“Of course, just tell me, maybe I can help,” I reassured her.

“Tony, I think…I think I’m pregnant,” Jenny told me at last.

“What? Are you positive? How do you know?” I was no longer so sure about what I could do to help.

“I’m not definite. I’m a few days late with my period.”

“But that doesn’t mean you’re pregnant, does it?” I wasn’t so much of an expert myself in terms of female biological issues. And in fact, Jenny didn’t know all that much either.

“I don’t really know, but I’m just so scared right now. I don’t know what to do.”

“When did this happen?”

“Just last week. My parents were away. David came over after school, and he convinced me into doing it. It was our first time,” Jenny told me how it came about.

Lunch break was now over, but Jenny was in no mood to go to fifth period. So, we both asked our teachers to let us go home early because of an emergency. Jenny and I found our way to a health center in the city. It was the only place we knew where pregnancy testing took place, even though we also knew that it was a place where abortion procedures were done. A staff member talked to us, but told us that it was still a little too early to check whether Jenny was pregnant or not, and to wait for a few more days.

The following days were very stressful for us, especially for Jenny who would have a heavy price to pay if she were really pregnant. We could not concentrate on our studies. All we could do was get on the phone to talk to each other about what to do if what we feared came true. We were both Catholic, and we knew that abortion was forbidden by the church. But if Jenny were to have the baby, what would happen to her future? As teenagers, the way to solve this issue seemed like something that neither of us had the ability to think of for ourselves. But we were also afraid to ask our parents because we didn’t think they would understand us. We were desperate.
Fortunately for Jenny, all the worries and anxieties were finally put to rest, when a few days later, she happily came to tell me that she was not pregnant after all. She finally had her period.

I was relieved that the decision of whether to abort or not abort a baby never had to be made by Jenny. However, as a teenager, I am not sure how I would have advised my friend at that time.
Now, as an adult, and as a priest, when thinking back on this event, I often wonder what I would have said then if our fears came true. Would I have given Jenny the right advice such as finding adults to help us sort out the issue? To think about the innocent baby that had no role in the fact that it was conceived? To try her best to handle the consequences of her action? Or to think about how she would feel if she did really kill a life?

I am not sure that I could have helped my friend to do these things because as a teenager, I was probably not mature enough to think of the right things to do. Perhaps the lack of maturity and wisdom that Jenny and I had could have led to the action that is being done by millions and millions of young people all over the world every year, and that’s resorting to abortion to solve the problem of unwanted pregnancy. From poor countries to rich countries, from big cities to small towns, teenagers are finding their ways to hospitals and clinics to have abortions done in order to put an end to their troubles. At least that’s what they think.

Troubles don’t end with abortions. Putting aside the fact that you’re killing a life; putting aside the fact that many of the abortion procedures are dangerous to your health; and putting aside the fact that you’re running away from your responsibility by getting rid of something sacred, the act of abortion will haunt you because you know in your heart and soul that you’re doing something really really immoral.

Recently, a young man came to me for confession. He said that he and his girlfriend had aborted their baby two years ago because at that time, they were not married and not ready to have a baby.

“Is this the first time you confess about this?” I asked.

“No father, I’ve already confessed this sin several times before,” he replied.

“When you confessed during those times, what did the priest tell you?”

“Father told me that I can be forgiven if I am truly sorry for what I have done. But for some reason, I still don’t feel like I am forgiven. My girlfriend and I always think about what we did, and it’s always on our mind. Even though it’s been two years, we still cannot forget about it. That’s why I wanted to confess again.”

The experience of this young man and his girlfriend is a very common experience with people who have aborted their babies. God made all of us to be good people. And because we are good people, if we do something terribly wrong, our conscience tells us right away. That is why there are so many people who struggle constantly in their heart because of the mistake they did in having an abortion. Having a baby unplanned can be very difficult and the price is definitely high, but perhaps nothing is as high as the feeling of guilt and pain that we carry within ourselves for having violated God’s law forbidding us to take away a helpless, innocent human life, especially when that human life is a part of our own flesh and blood.

It is true that God can forgive anything, even the gravest sin. God can forgive when we are truly sorry for what we have done, and we promise and do our best to repent for the sin that we have committed. But sometimes, it is easier for God to forgive us than for us to forgive ourselves. That’s why many people who have committed abortion face such grave emotional and spiritual troubles in their lives.

Dear friends, life is a series of decisions that we have to make everyday and every minute. We started to make decisions since we were just a few years old. Some decisions are a piece of cake; we can make them in a split second without giving a second thought. But not all decisions are this easy. Some have great implications for our life. As we live in this modern age, the issue of unplanned pregnancy is no longer something unfamiliar to us. Either we ourselves have encountered it, or someone we know like a friend or family member has had to face this experience.

Whatever we do, I believe that we cannot go wrong when we make the decision for life instead of against life; make the decision for accepting the responsibility instead of running away from responsibility; and most importantly, make the decision for abstinence so that we don’t have to make the choice of abortion in the first place!