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
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