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Sunday, 08 February 2015 18:01

Two years of Mission and stories to tell for Fr Vinh

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Fr Vinh Tran svdAs an SVD priest, Father Joseph Vinh Tran remembered many mission stories from other SVD missionaries during his formation and was touched by them, shaping the way he viewed God’s mission and God’s vocation. After two years of mission experience in Thailand, he can finally tell his own stories, writes Fr Truong Le svd.

“Two years of mission experience, and already I have so many stories to tell,” said Fr Vinh in a farewell dinner with friends and confreres before heading to Vietnam for home-leave.

Why is it important to “tell our tales,” especially for missionaries? The Superior General of the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD), Fr Heinz Kuluke svd, in his recent visit to Thailand, encouraged our SVD confreres to share more about their ministries and working with the people of God. In reflection, they are able to see how their work is relevant in accordance with the charism of the congregation and in line of what our founder, Fr Arnold Janssen svd, had envisioned. By sharing their stories, our confreres relate their difficulties to missionaries of past generations finding that same strength, commitment, and persistence to help overcome any obstacles they are experiencing. What is gained by the retelling of mission stories is a sense of hope that despite the darkness and uncertainty of the situation, SVDs will always have the light of Christ and be assured with his presence. Moreover, people just want to hear mission stories; good deeds must not go unheard.

As an SVD priest, Fr Vinh remembered many mission stories from other SVD missionaries during his formation and was touched by them, shaping the way he viewed God’s mission and God’s vocation. After two years of mission experience in Thailand, he now can tell his own stories, his witnessing of faith. “I’d never imagined being on the path that I am on today,” said Fr Vinh. “Although there were many difficulties on the way and nights of loneliness, yet somehow I know that God will provide. I always take that phrase for granted, but indeed in the end God is always there.”

A native of Vietnam, Fr Vinh entered into formation with the SVD in 20o2 and made perpetual vows in July of 2011. Shortly after his ordination, he was given the first assignment to Thailand and arrived in September of 2012. Completing the 6-month language studies in Bangkok, he then transferred to the province of Loei (Northeastern Thailand) and took up residency for another 5 months. Speaking the Thai language with increased fluency and having more knowledge of the culture, Fr Vinh began his assignment to the Province of Udon Thani specifically serving the district of Ban Dung, where he took up four parishes at Kamsida, Tuankham, Bang Hamoi, and Nasi Luang (these are small villages in Northeastern Thailand).

Fr Vinh decided that he would stay at each place for 2-3 days and run to all four places on Sundays. On the first night at Tuankham, Fr Vinh was startled with a number of people coming around the rectory and glancing in with their flashlights as though something unusual was lurking in this place. So, Fr Vinh came out and greeted the people. Their reaction was incomprehensible as he heard, “Oh! We finally have a parish priest after 20 years.” After spending some time with the people, Fr Vinh soon realized the meaning and depths to these words. The parish was small having less than 20 people. It is more like a mission out-station and so many priests come and go and only stayed for the weekend mass. With the shortage of personnel the church had been neglected for over 10 years. Seeing a lit rectory in the night was indeed something unusual; perhaps, unintentionally, Fr Vinh was sending out a message that he came to stay.

The beginning days of his first assignment as a missionary were difficult as Fr Vinh had to tackle new challenges and faced many obstacles. Other than having to take care of four parishes with their needs and worries, the main challenge was to overcome people’s mentalities and expectations of a missionary priest. For example, when the church at Tuankham was built around the 1980s, missionaries of that time wanted more people come to church so incentives were given to accomplish this goal, usually in the form of money. This mentality continued to exist upon the arrival of Fr Vinh to the parishes: go to mass and receive money from the priest. This issue gave Fr Vinh enormous anxiety especially when some parishioners approached him directly after mass. “I was shocked that some would ask me directly for money saying that the priest before him would give them money if they had come to church,” said Fr Vinh. “I did not know what to say other than the truth that I have no money. This was something hard to change.”

Seeing that the attendance at mass was decreasing by the weeks, Fr Vinh felt that he had to do something, but submitting to the incentive system was not the answer. He wanted to spread the faith and not buy it. He certainly had no money to give but through sincerity he hoped to change the people’s way of seeing his ministry. Fr Vinh, thus, began new initiatives to reach out to the people. He began to teach English and Vietnamese as there were a few who were interested. He also went around to visit catholic families with the hope that they would consider coming back to church. Wherever and whenever he had mass, he would gather up the people by picking them up at their homes and would drop them off afterward. “It’s tough and I do feel resentment and frustration at times; after all I’m not a saint,” Fr Vinh confessed. “But what kept me from quitting or leaving to another place was prayer which reminded me of that very reason why I chose to follow this path -God.”

As though things had not been hard enough, the rainy season came with its usual carnage beating down on these old churches. The church at Tuankham was in poor condition and needed the most help. There were parts of the building where the structural integrity of the wall was completely compromised that by a simple touch could bring down a whole section of the church. Even with certain sections blocked off, during mass Fr Vinh had to keep an extra eye on these places so that accidents would not happen. “Perhaps, if you look close enough, there’s always grace hidden in the midst of struggles,” said Fr Vinh, convinced that God wanted him to serve here. “When it rained during mass, I had to move from one side of the altar to the other making sure that the host and everything else doesn’t get wet; the parishioners would get a good laugh out of my balancing act. Things were difficult, but we made it work –we still had mass and prayer at this place.”

Realizing that the integrity of the church building was at risk, Fr Vinh had to do something, but who to ask? And how? He admitted that his weakness was taking the initiative to ask for financial support due to his personality. When asked about Fr Vinh, one of his former parishioners answered, “Well, he’s not that handsome or attractive, funny or out-going; he’s rather quiet and reserved, but you just got to love the guy.” Perhaps, Fr Vinh’s interior qualities appeal more to the people. A few benefactors approached him to ask if he needed any help at all. This came as an answer to Fr Vinh’s persistent prayers. In addition, his confreres also came to his aide by helping him find financial means for the church. With the help of the people and his confreres, Fr Vinh began the renovation of the Church and more people contributed as the word spread. During this time, one of the most memorable experience he had was finding an unnamed enveloped in his locked office that said, “To help you build the church.” Fr. Vinh waited for a few days before using the money because he felt that someone may return looking for it as though the person had accidently dropped it in his office and placed it neatly on the corner of his desk. “To this day I still don’t know who that person is, but the gift came at the most needed moment in my ministry. The money was a small amount but the affirmation and encouragement from those words gave me the courage to overcome much of my own hesitancy and despair.”

By the time the renovation project at Tuankham was upon completion, Christmas was just weeks away. Fr Vinh intended to gather all the parishioners at Kamsida for the Christmas mass. Again, he ran into another hurdle realizing that he only had 200 Baht (less than $6) in his pocket for the Christmas decoration and other preparation expenses. This amount was not enough to even have a manger, but Fr Vinh began to do what he could. While hanging up Christmas lights outside the church, a couple drove by on a motorbike and asked for the parish priest. Fr Vinh came up and introduced himself but the couple was skeptical seeing his outer appearance with casual clothing (shorts and a T-shirt). When they were convinced, the couple offered an envelope then drove off. This was the 5,000 Baht (roughly $150) that was needed to complete the decoration and preparation for Christmas. This was indeed a blessing, but it allowed for something much more –the greatest gift the parish had ever received. On Christmas Eve, not only the parishioners were there, but others from around the area came to offer their blessings. The Buddhist monks from the nearby temple also came to offer their blessings and encouraged Fr Vinh to continue his work here with the people. There were much food shared that night and the people danced away to the traditional music. This was the largest gathering the village had in years. Fr Vinh could only give thanks for the Christmas celebration and sharing the joy with people from around the area and of different faith.

“To tell our stories is to praise God and to thank him for all his gifts,” said Pope Francis in his letter for the year of Consecrated Life. As an SVD –a consecrated religious– Fr Vinh could only look back and reflect on his mission experience with a sense of gratitude. There were many difficulties and internal struggles, yet every time God delivered. Placing the failures and successes of his work in the context of God’s mission gives him meaning to continue to grasp and hold onto that very vocation God has for him. Thus, he dares to stand along with other SVDs to claim that “His Mission is our mission.”

This article by Fr Truong T. Le svd was first published on 20 January 2015 on the website of the Society of the Divine Word Australian Province.