Thursday, August 14, 2008

Modest Beginnings

July 2008

As of my writing this, it has been about a year and three months since I’ve studied and worked in Thailand. I spent a total of 8 months learning the language (5 months in school and three months on my own). I then moved to Udon Thani Diocese for a program of internship that was supposed to last six months. But three months into my internship, the church at Nong Bua Lamphu province found itself without a pastor because the present pastor was reassigned by his order to another part of the country. St. Michael Archangel church in NBL is a lovely small church that was built by Br. Damien Lunders, SVD and opened in 2002.
Although I haven’t finished my internship program, I approached the bishop and asked that I’d be sent to NBL to administer the parish, until Fr. Truc Phan, SVD who was still studying Thai in Bangkok was ready to take over the job. The bishop readily agreed because the diocese was already short of personnel. I moved my belongings to NBL in April, and now, I have been here for about three and a half months.
Looking back on the time that has gone by, I must say that it has been a very unexpected experience for me. Many things happened not according to what I had planned, but turn out to be the very things that speak of the great providence of God. I originally planned to study Thai for a year, but found out that I was itching to go into the “field” after six months into the experience. I felt I had enough language skills to do the work. So I asked my superiors to let me shorten the time of language program. They agreed, on the condition that I would take the Thai language proficiency exam given once a year in December. I took the test, and passed.
Once in Udon Thani, I also cut short my internship program because of an unexpected need in the local church. Through personal reflection and seeking advice from some people around me, I decided to take on the challenge.
Now, here in NBL, my aim is to help build this small parish into a meaningful place in the community and in the diocese. Because of the small number of parishioners and many changes of priest in a short time, the parish has been slow in developing, unlike the Mother of Perpetual Help Center and the children’s home, which have seen tremendous development in the past years. Catholics in the province still don’t go to mass regularly, and many do not attend mass at all. For various reasons, the diocese’s subsidy for the parish is rather modest, only 300 UAD a month for all church expenses including the pastor’s expenses. Sunday collections are also quite modest since over half of the church are children/orphans, teenagers, and manual laborers. The previous pastor managed to have a confirmation catechism class for a group of 5 teenagers, but the teacher is “on loan” from Udon Thani. The church has no organ, so the song leader uses a CD player to play recorded music to which the community sings along. The priest also has no altar servers.
Facing a rather unlively situation, my goal has been to do what I can in order to help the small parish become a place where people come to hear the Good News and to participate in enriching activities. People should know of the church as more than just “where the HIV/AIDS Center is located”. Certainly, the HIV/AIDS center is an essential and extremely significant part of our ministry in NBL, but the church itself needs to look for ways to serve other pastoral needs as well.
With this understanding in mind, I have taken some modest steps towards realization of this goal. First, I attempt to tailor my homily messages (which takes me quite some time to prepare in Thai) to help parishioners become more conscious of their Christian identity and mission so that they would take a more active role in the family, parish and in society as God’s witnesses.
Second, I have started programs that each parish must have, that is, catechism. Presently, the confirmation class continues to take place. The children’s catechism class has also been opened two months ago, with the help of another parishioner from NBL. This class has 19 students, who are from the children’s home run by the Sisters of Charity. Although, we encourage parents to send their children to this class as well. Two weeks ago, I have opened an adult catechism class, which I teach myself. This class has two adult women and one teenager. They are Buddhists but want to convert to Christianity. Beside catechism, I have also opened an English class for high school students in NBL in an attempt to put the church to the service of the greater community. My class now has 10 students, and I teach on Saturday and Sunday. More are interested in studying, but I have to restrict the number of students for practical reasons.
Third, I try to make small but tangible changes to way the church looks and feels by asking parishioners to be responsible for donating and setting up the flowers in the church each week; by having altar servers at every Sunday mass; by implementing correct liturgical practices in the mass, and by introducing people who come to mass for the first time or who has not been to mass for a long time to create a sense of hospitality. Hospitality is further enhanced after mass, in which snacks and drinks are served so parishioners have an opportunity for fellowship. However, the most important change to the “feel” of the church took place last Sunday when through some contacts with good-hearted Catholics in Bangkok, the church now has a second hand Yamaha electric piano that can replace the CD player as provider of music for the liturgy. For the first time, the community can sing their praises to God accompanied by live music played by the catechism teacher.
Finally, I am trying to work toward community building by seeking out parishioners. An ongoing project is registration of membership in the church. This project was started over a month ago, and will take some time to complete. I have made a number of visits to parishioners who do not go to church often, or at all. Since May, I have published a monthly parish newsletter that includes community news, articles and reflections. Lastly, being of Vietnamese descent, I am also seeking out Catholic migrant Vietnamese workers in the area who were unfamiliar with the parish. I hope that the church will become a place of support for these young workers who are trying to make a living far away from home.
As one can see, the situation of the parish is rather modest. And the work I am carrying out is also modest. With my limited Thai ability, it takes me longer to do many things, for example, preparing my homily, writing articles for the newsletter, or even writing a thank you letter to Thai benefactors. However, this is also an “excuse” or rather an “opportunity” for me seek help and collaboration from parishioners. But I have expressed to the parishioners that I am young, inexperienced, and I need a lot of help. However, I do hope and am confident that with every little thing done, it is done with God’s blessings and inspiration.
Soon, Fr. Truc will join me and take over the position of pastor of the parish. Fr. Truc has many talents and abilities that I lack in. I hope that with the bishop’s consent, I will be assigned as Fr. Truc’s assistant, and help him to make this parish into a small but lively witness of the Good News of Christ in NBL province.

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