Mission to misery: Concord priest, others minister to Vietnam's Montagnards
CONCORD — Father Vang Cong Tran will soon look at the disfigured face of a Vietnamese leper and say, 'You are beautiful."
Twice a year the Redemptorist priest from St. James the Greater Church in Concord journeys to the remote highlands of his homeland to bring the Gospel message of love and kindness to the poor and outcast of Vietnamese society. Father Tran's latest mission will last the entire month of July.
Pictured: Redemptorist Father Vang Cong Tran (right) visits with a man afflicted with leprosy in one of the many Montagnard communities he and others traveled to last year with the Viet Toc Foundation. The Montagnards live in the central highlands of Vietnam and are often persecuted for their Catholic faith. Father Tran is in Vietnam again this month with a half dozen others to serve the Montagnards, particularly working with children, the poor and lepers. (Photos provided by Father Vang Cong Tran)
He works closely through the Viet Toc Foundation, a non-profit based in Silver Spring, Md., that aids the minority Montagnard communities through education and medical care, especially targeting needy children, orphans and lepers. Besides supporters in this diocese, foundation leaders are based in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, and Toronto, Canada.
The Montagnards are a persecuted minority in this Communist country – marginalized in part because of their historical support for the U.S. during the Vietnam War, in part because of their Christian beliefs, and in part because, well, they're poor, rural people who don't belong to the majority Vietnamese culture.
Into these circumstances step the volunteers of the Viet Toc Foundation to provide food and clothing, medical help and educational opportunities for these families so that they might become self-sufficient. The foundation also encourages protection of the cultural heritage of the Montagnard peoples, who have an ancient tradition of gong and drum music and step dancing that is passed from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters.
Most importantly, Father Tran said, the volunteers build relationships to foster the people's development: listening to their problems, ministering to their spiritual needs, affirming their human dignity.
"We share with them as people of faith," Father Tran explains. "We recognize the beauty of God's presence in their lives."
After flying into Saigon last week, Father Tran and a half dozen companions drove 11-12 hours by bus at night to reach the central highlands.
As they travel this month, they will ride on motorcycles as they go from village to village, to avoid attracting unnecessary attention (cars are rare in this region) and because the road conditions are sometimes too treacherous for larger vehicles.
They will ford rivers swelled by the rainy season and navigate through dry, wooded areas, always accompanied by the local priest, sister or lay catechists who know the area and the particular families in need. During their month-long stay, they will travel to as many as 16 regions and meet with thousands of people – 200 people here, 3,000 people there.
Even though they are accompanied by a local lay leader or priest, Father Tran and his companions are a rare sight in this isolated area of Vietnam. Most of the time, he can't speak the local dialect, although he can say Mass for them.
On a previous mission trip, Father Tran recalls, a young girl came up to him and began kissing and smelling his arm. She was surprised by the lingering smell of soap. She kept asking him, "Why are you here?" because he didn't have to leave his life in America. His reply: God calls us all to love one another and to serve our neediest brothers and sisters in Christ.
The missionaries aren't allowed to proselytize, and Father Tran can say Mass only in permitted areas or quietly in people's homes. The foundation has no political agenda, so Father Tran is careful to follow the lead of the local priest in each area they visit. But government authorities have questioned him in the past, and in one instance police came into a village looking for them, boldly entering people's homes. People crowded by the door of the house Father Tran and his companions were in, to give them a few moments to slip quietly out the back so they wouldn't create any problems for the residents.
Education is a major component of the foundation's work, and its education programs now support close to 1,500 children. The quality of education in these rural areas is weak and sporadic, with underpaid and unmotivated teachers. And schooling is a luxury few can afford because of the lack of money and time. Children are needed to gather wood, walk to the nearest water source to fill water bottles, or tend to their younger brothers and sisters while their parents make do the best way they can.
The foundation encourages students to form study groups to support each other and develop student leaders, fund scholarships for additional schooling, and pay for school supplies. Students who make good grades get prizes and certificates at the end of the school term. It's a simple gesture, but it has a powerful impact on these bright and hope-filled children, Father Tran says.
They also visit leper colonies and provide whatever aid they can.
Lepers are segregated in ramshackle communities with their children, where they receive little medical attention and must survive in squalid living conditions. But, Father Tran says, we as Christians recognize that their personhood is greater than their ailing bodies, so mission workers look past the missing limbs and disfigured faces to see the people themselves and help them.
Wherever there may be a need, the Viet Toc Foundation tries to help. They acquire solar lighting for a village so that the children can continue their studies after sunset. They dig wells, put in water tanks and set up water treatment systems so children don't have to spend time each day fetching water or drinking from filthy streams. They arrange to correct cleft palates in young children – not just the surgery itself, but housing near the hospital and food for months leading up to the procedure so that the undernourished children can be strong enough to survive it. They pay for college tuition, so that young leaders can be trained as teachers and doctors and then return home where they can help build up the local village's self-sufficiency.
Father Tran makes this trip to Vietnam's central highlands twice a year, and each time he returns, he says, he vows not to forget each person he has met. And he tells members of the Montagnard community in the diocese to do the same: to remember their roots, their heritage, the family and friends they left behind. God puts each one of us in this place for a purpose, and we are asked to bloom where we are planted, he says.
Just as Jesus became man, lived among us and became part of us, Father Tran explains, so too do the foundation volunteers seek to build relationships with the people they serve.
"We tell them, 'You are family.' We are part of their lives. I would say that is the most important part of solidarity."
How can you help?
See more photos:
Members of the Montagnard communities in the central highlands of Vietnam gather each summer for a music festival and competition among children of the villages to celebrate their ancient cultural heritage, organized in part by the Viet Toc Foundation. Video footage from last year's competition of gong and drum music and step dancing – including performances of "Picking the Leaves to Hold the Rice and Tending the Cattle" and "Praising Mother Mary" – is posted at the Diocese of Charlotte's YouTube channel, along with more photos from Father Tran's previous mission trips.
-- Patricia L. Guilfoyle, Editor
Patron saints of familiesThere's a saint for everyone, and families are no different. Here are a few noteworthy examples for your family to learn more about. There is the familiar and beloved St. Joseph, foster father of Jesus, and St. Francis of Assisi, who's on everyone's...
Reflections on St. PeterPeter the fishermanAfter Jesus, Peter is the figure best known and most frequently cited in the New Testament writings: he is mentioned 154 times with the nickname of Pétros, "rock," the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Jesus gave him directly;...
Pope Francis on the Year of FaithPope Francis spoke about the Year of Faith in his audience with representatives of the Churches and Ecclesial Communities, and other religions March 20: "I begin my apostolic ministry in this year that my venerated predecessor, Pope Benedict...
As pope, Benedict worked to promote understanding of Vatican IIVATICAN CITY — On Feb. 14, in one of the last public appearances of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the clergy of Rome about his experiences at the Second Vatican Council, which he had attended as an expert consultant half a century...
People around world pledge to say rosary daily during Year of FaithEASTON, Mass. — The Family Rosary division of Holy Cross Family Ministries in Easton has gathered more than 80,000 pledges from people around the globe who said they would pray the rosary daily during the 2012-13 Year of Faith. The pledges,...
A culture of lifeIn 2013 our country observes a shameful anniversary: marking 40 years of a "culture of death" that began when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, struck down all state laws restricting abortion. Since the advent of "legalized" abortion,...
The Fathers of the Church
Lives of the Saints
St. Mark the Evangelist's feast day celebrated on April 25St. Mark is the patron of St. Mark Church in Huntersville, which was dedicated in 2009. (File, Catholic News Herald)St. Mark, the Evangelist, is the author of the second Gospel and the patron saint of notaries. He wrote the Gospel in Greek for the Gentile...
St. Damien of Molokai's life of sacrifice remembered May 10The Church will remember St. Damien of Molokai May 10. The Belgian priest sacrificed his life and health to become a spiritual father to the victims of leprosy quarantined on a Hawaiian island. Joseph de Veuser, who later took the name Damien in religious...
'Oracle of Palestine' St. Epiphanius of Salamis celebrated May 12On May 12 the Church honors St. Epiphanius of Salamis, an early monk, bishop and Church Father known for his extensive learning and defense of Catholic teachings in the fourth century. During a 2007 visit with the Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus, Pope...
St. Katharine Drexel has local connectionOn March 3, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who abandoned her family's fortune to found an order of sisters dedicated to serving the impoverished African American and Native American populations...
St. Bede known for scholarship and holiness, honored May 25The Church will celebrate the feast of St. Bede May 25. The English priest, monk and scholar is sometimes known as "the Venerable Bede" for his combination of personal holiness and intellectual brilliance. Bede was born during 673 near the...
FROM THE PASTORS
Read and listen to homilies posted regularly by pastors at parishes within the Diocese of Charlotte:
- Fr. Frank Cancro at Queen of the Apostles
- Fr. Patrick Earl at St. Peter in Charlotte
- Fr. John Eckert at St. John the Baptist in Tryon
- Fr. Timothy Reid at St. Ann in Charlotte
- Fr. Benjamin Roberts at Our Lady of Lourdes in Monroe
- Fr. Patrick Winslow at St. Thomas Aquinas in Charlotte
- Watch full Masses live and on demand, listen to homilies and reflections from Sacred Heart Church in Salisbury
- Listen to homilies from St. William Catholic Church in Murphy