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Monday, 17 November 2014 18:41

What are Marist Brothers doing in Hanoi?

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Br Geoff Kelly fms

Marist Brother Geoffrey Kelly's "New Horizons Project" in Hanoi offers English classes and will soon offer vocational training for young unemployed and English classes to blind Vietnamese. Br Barry Lamb fms shares why Australian Marist Brothers are celebrating this outreach.

In the small “village” of Quoc Oai, a little west of Hanoi, lives and works Br Geoffrey Kelly, an Australian Brother who has volunteered to learn the Vietnamese language and to be a gentle presence to the people there. With him is Brother Antonio from Spain and a young Brother, Br. Quy, our first Vietnamese Brother.​ During 2013, before Geoff was supported by these other Brothers, the Provincial of Australia was determined that Br Geoffrey enjoy some supportive company while he was so far from home and in such a relatively isolated environment. And that is how I, another Australian Marist, joined Geoff from May until July in his rented premises in an alleyway just off the main street.

In virtual retirement after an apostolate of teaching, I had the time and inclination to try to be of some encouraging company for Geoff as he tries to introduce the people to Christian values and attitudes - ever so indirectly - through initially offering free English classes to primary, middle school and high school students as well as some Vietnamese teachers. Called the “New Horizons Project”, its next phase involves the vocational training and support for young unemployed, and the teaching of English to blind Vietnamese. In other leased rooms with a “shop front” opening to the main street, Geoff has set up classrooms. With the help of his Vietnamese assistant, he has spread the word through the schools of the area that free English lessons are available. As Vietnamese children attend school either in the morning or afternoon, there are always children free to attend lessons throughout the day. Bright-faced children arrive with their clear plastic satchels eager to throw themselves into any language activities Geoff and his volunteers have prepared (the programme is supported by part-time volunteer teachers).

Br Geoff and classWhile it is clear that the children’s command of English is improving in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, it is not clear, whether they connect the generosity of the teachers with the values that move the Brothers to be there. But as a “bystander”, I can say that Geoff (and I, for that matter) were universally greeted with smiles by the locals. Geoff has been studying the Vietnamese language for some years and the traders in the market enjoy their attempts to persuade him to buy their goods and relish teasing or joking in a most natural and happy way. Occasionally, Geoff finds himself in conversation with the traders who are eager to chat with him.

Thanks to the number of children participating in the different programmes, it is common to see the children’s faces light up in recognition of Geoff, happily greeting him as he goes on his way by bicycle. Neighbours care for each other and some are kind enough to share their food. Another regular occurrence is having a tradesman refuse payment and to wave away any offer of payment for a service provided or even for a can of beer. I have experienced also, the obvious delight of the locals when hearing that one is volunteering in the district. There seems to be a great appreciation of people from developed countries who are helping them in such a selfless way.

Is this fulfilling the original idea of the Ad Gentes project?

One of my musings is that what Geoff, the other Brothers and his volunteers are doing in Quoc Oai is living out the encouragement attributed to Francis of Assisi: “You should always preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.” Australian Marists might rejoice in this outreach of the Brothers into countries still deprived of the formal preaching of the Gospel after many decades. And we can join in prayer and encouragement of Brother Geoff and the other Brothers in their zealous and patient work.

Photos: (left) Br Geoff in teaching mode; (right) Br Geoff and a volunteer teacher with a small class.

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Lavalla magazine, the staff journal of Marist Schools Australia.