Saturday, December 31, 2016

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

In the Catholic Church, the first of January is also a day that commemorates Mary as the Mother of God. Today's first reading is from the Book of Numbers:

May Yahweh bless you and keep you!
May Yahweh let His face shine upon you!
May Yahweh look kindly on you, and give you His peace!

So, let's start 2017 by being resolute in following Our Lady's lead.  Let our lives be a blessing to God and to others, so that we may be open to the fullness of His peace.  The following lines were penned from my morning prayer on New Year's Day a couple of years ago. Recently, the rainbow has been warped into a weapon that is wielded against God, but Biblically it represents a promise of peace to His people.

Wishing you and yours a grace filled New Year with abundant blessings!

A poem to ponder...

His Artist

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
And they pierce right through the dark
The brushstrokes don’t come from her hand
But the center of her heart

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
And you might stop and stare a while
From the palette of her laughter
Off the easel of her smile

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
Our Lady’s painting rainbows
She’s always painting rainbows
Our Lady paints His rainbows

Photo taken by Marian S.:  The Salesian Marian Shrine in Stony Point, NY
This isn't my photo, but it's quite fitting.
We stayed at this shrine while on retreat during the final week of SLM orientation.  

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
But unlike ordinary girls
The brightness of her spirit
Shames the beauty of this world

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
But they’re not prisms of the air
Formed from dew drops of the heart
Springing from the depths of prayer

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
Our Lady’s painting rainbows
She’s always painting rainbows
Our Lady paints His rainbows

My niece, Alyssa, gave me this picture right before I left for Vietnam

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
And if you close your eyes you’d know
‘cause you can’t find them with your vision
But you can sense them with your soul

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
And just as choirs of angels see
She’ll keep painting with the colors
of God’s Love eternally

Our Lady’s painting rainbows
Our Lady’s painting rainbows
She’s always painting rainbows
Through her He paints His rainbows

A Christmas gift from a group of new friends.
They are students at the University of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City

Friday, December 23, 2016

Find Christ this Christmas

The Brothers were a bustle in perfect synchronization
Like elves in their workshop making last-minute preparation
There was welding and weaving and electrical wiring
The dawn to dusk effort was truly inspiring
Brother John welding
Brother Damian preparing Christmas lights
Brother Peter doing electrical work
Brother Peter making a stable
Peacocks were painted, a bull was built, they crafted a kangaroo
Heaps of handmade animals completed the holiday zoo
Of course, if you're in the United States, you may think that it's quite irrelevant
But here Christmas just isn’t Christmas without an animatronic elephant
Brother Joseph talking to a young admirer of his work.
Brother Joseph with his completed kangaroo.
Pumps and plumbing were installed for waterworks to flow
And each circuit board was balanced, so the breakers wouldn't blow
Baby Jesus was tenderly placed on a manger to lay
The real reason for the season front and center on display 
Brother Dominic and Brother John carrying the statue of Jesus.
The Brothers lost much sleep and I could see it in their eyes
But if you asked them why they did it they would give a prompt reply
In the end it’s worth the hard work, long hours and sacrifice
Because on the face of each child we're clearly seeing Christ

Monday, December 5, 2016

Year of the Family

As the sunrise was ushering in another Thanksgiving Day Stateside, we were having a feast of our own under the starry skies of Vietnam.  However, this year spring rolls served as a substitute for the traditional turkey.  The Holy Rosary Sisters had invited the local Dominican and Salesian Communities to join them for a yearly celebration.  These sisters operate a boarding home that cares for a number of the local school children.  As we entered the gates we were quickly surrounded by an excited swarm.  Questions came from all directions in rapid-fire succession. 

Kids: “What’s your name?”
Me: “My name is Brandon.”
Kids: “Bra-den…Bren-da…Brin-dan…”
[They had a look on their faces that seemed to say, Can we just call you Joe?]
Kids: “Where are you from?”
Me: “The United States.”
Kids: [blank stares behind broad smiles]
Me: “America…”
Kids: “Oh, America! America!”
Kids: “How are you?”
Me: “I’m fine.  How are you?” 
To which one little girl cheerfully replied, “I’m 10!”
Then like clockwork another group of kids came running from across the room to start round two.

“What’s your name?”…

Group shot with some of the children.  Brother Michael holding up a little boy in the back.
Enjoying the feast...

After the warm welcome, we were led into a room filled with food.  Shortly after sitting down I heard noise blaring from the room outside.  I peeked my head out of the doorway, but sadly it wasn’t the Lions-Packers game.  What I saw looked like the filming of a music video for House of Pain.  There was so much fist pumping that it put the Jersey Shore to shame.  Absolute hilarity ensued throughout the night as the children, Brothers, and Sisters displayed their best dance moves.

Brother Peter getting a kick out of the kids' dance moves.

As I surveyed the jubilant scene on the dancefloor the Gospel of Matthew immediately came to mind. "And everyone that has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or land, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life." These words rang with particular truth that night.  There is much to be thankful for.  I am especially grateful for what I hope was a slight foretaste of the future.  The day when we will sit together as one family giving thanks to God at the eternal banquet in heaven.

Brother Anthony and Brother Bao with two of the boys.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

28 Days Later

For Catholics, this time of year has historically been less about costumes and candy and more about prayer and family.  Here in Da Lat, I am happy to report that they are still much more concerned with the later.  This month began with the celebration of All Saints and All Soul’s Days.  Masses were celebrated around the clock in honor of loved ones.  In the evening, a church packed with parishioners prayed the rosary in memory of their deceased family members.  During the first week of November our Salesian Community paid a daily visit to a local tomb or cemetery to pray for Priests and missionaries that have passed away. 

Group picture at the top of a mountain cemetery.

This past Sunday the martyrs of Vietnam were remembered in a special way.  In this country, where it has been estimated that hundreds of thousands have died for their faith, there is a deep spirituality and appreciation for any freedom to worship.  During Mass on Sundays it is typical to see hundreds of people outside the church in overflow seating.  This is something we might only witness during Christmas or Easter in the United States.  The Christmas Spirit seems to be imbedded in the Vietnamese culture year-round.  It resonates kindness and hospitality.  Invitations to converse over a cup of coffee are constant.  When someone cooks a meal in one of the local villages they often share with neighboring families.  To many people of the parish the church grounds, always buzzing with social activity, are like a second home.  Mothers go off to choir practice while their sons play soccer, their daughters dance, and their husbands play a pick-up game of basketball. 

Statue of Our Lady of La Vang
[The story is that Mary appeared with the child Jesus to give comfort to Vietnamese Catholics hiding deep in the rain-forests of La Vang during a time of intense persecution.]

Brother Simon teaching guitar
Last night, while teaching some new vocabulary from the textbook, we came across sections about divorce and the elderly.   Some concepts proved to be much more foreign than the English language itself.  Terms like irreconcilable differences, joint custody and nursing homes left the students scratching their heads even after they clearly understood their meanings.  Divorce is a rarity here and the elderly are cared for in the homes of their children.  They are treated with a great deal of dignity and respect.  In this community, the Brothers take turns looking after the needs of a 91-year old Priest, Fr. Isidoro.  He is the first Salesian from Vietnam and was ordained a Priest before World War 2.  Father is a treasure trove of life experience.  Fortunately, he is fluent in a number of languages, including English.  Sometimes we go to his office, pass around a bowl of cashews, and listen to firsthand accounts about everything from the Japanese occupation to the rise of communism.  Father faithfully watches the evening news, but is often heard exclaiming, “I don’t believe a word of it!”.

Brother Anthony instructing gym class.

Brother Peter giving singing and piano lessons.

As I learn of the darker periods in Vietnam’s history and watch from a distance as unrest unfolds in the streets of America, I recognize the fleeting nature of the world with greater clarity.  Our hopes are misplaced in communism and capitalism.  Our faith is misplaced in political parties and public policies.  When our hope and faith is properly placed in God then maybe we will start to take a little bit of the goodness God has placed in each one of us and begin to build a lasting kingdom with His Heart, instead of a passing one with our hands. 

Brother Peter giving piano lessons
Brother Joseph teaching the drums.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Lost in Translation

I’m starting to settle in and get into the full swing of things.  I have about 50 classes and individual tutoring sessions per week.  The 1:1 sessions with the Brothers have been a great way to get to know them, their families, the Vietnamese culture, and the paths that have led them to religious life.  Most of the time it’s like chatting with friends or co-workers.  Occasionally it feels like story time, doing mad libs, or playing charades.  The students often say, ”Oh, teacher.  You have so much work!  You schedule is so full! “, but I’m actually having a lot of fun. 

In the theater watching performances with the local school children for the Feast of Don Rua
Kids from the parish joking around before catechism class.

Many of the Brothers have access to the internet and smartphones, so sometimes Uncle Google (as it is lovingly referred to) assists them with their writing.  This had led to some interesting word choices.  At times the adjectives they use are a bit strong.  One student wrote that their mother was extremely morbid.  Immediately my mind recalled dark and sinister characters from ‘80s horror flicks and meshed them with an assortment of scenes from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.  After further discussion, we discovered the word he actually meant was “frail”.
Some of the Brothers putting on a concert.

Spending time with members of a local indigenous tribe along with visitors from FOCUS missions. 

One way I have been testing listening comprehension is by having students write down what I say as I read a paragraph aloud.  While doing this exercise one of the lines read “…tackle the problem.” The student wrote “taco the problem”.  I explained that tacos are a kind of Mexican food, to which he replied, “Ah, tackle, the dried leaves used in cigarettes.”’re thinking of tobacco…  This makes me wonder how much they understand when I engage them in everyday conversations.  If it were possible I’d love to see the real-time transcripts of what they thought I was saying.


In the future, English could be a useful tool for these Priests and Brothers as they go out on mission.  However, English will never be the most important language that they speak.  They speak most clearly by their joy, hospitality, self-sacrifice, and love for the poor children of their communities.   They are all fluent in this language.  I watch them communicate by countless little acts of kindness every day.  I hope their English will improve during my time here, but most of all I pray that they continue to perfect the only language worth mastering, the language of the Gospel.
Statue of Our Lady inside the chapel.

Basketball with the Brothers

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Link to Pictures

All of the pictures I've taken can be found by clicking on this DropBox link.  I will upload future pictures to that address.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Good Morning Vietnam.....

After being denied entry into the DRC (for unknown and unexplained reasons) plans changed and I have recently landed in Vietnam.  It has been a few days since I arrived in Da Lat City.  My primary duty is to help the aspirants, brothers and Priests of the local Salesian community improve their listening comprehension, conversational English, reading, and writing skills.  There are numerous high school and university students that come to the center in the evenings who are eager for any opportunity to practice speaking English with an American.
Living quarters of my new home
It has been emphasized to me many times that the community in Da Lat is one big family. They have definitely made me feel at home.  From the beginning I've been treated with the utmost warmth and hospitality.  The city itself is set in the mountains and the surrounding area is an interesting dichotomy of bustling city life and natural wonder.  The rumbling of motorbikes and honking of horns is a constant.  Even though vehicles flood the streets the traffic flows freely.  The only downside seems to be the total disregard for pedestrians and traffic laws.  So for all you Bostonians, it seems forming motorcycle gangs might be the only solution to your traffic woes.  (Please use discretion when making the seasonal transition to snowmobiles.)  The weather feels familiar.  Other than the sporadic torrential downpours it is typical of what you would expect to find late in September on the East Coast or Midwestern United States. 
Street view
Mountain view
The community has limited my workload this first week as I recover from jet-lag and adjust to my new surroundings.  This has given me some freedom to explore my new living quarters and experience some of the local sites with other members of the community.  Inside the gates of the compound there is a church, chapel, a couple of basketball courts and a large soccer field.  It is home to about 50 brothers, Priests and volunteers.  There is a small school offered free of charge for about 100 local children (5-12 yrs old) that are otherwise unable to afford a public education. 

More views...

Hiking with some of the community members, stop at the local Buddist temple

Visit to local flower farmer, friend of one of the brothers
They raise pigs on-site and in the back of the property I found an area housing a number of dogs, including four puppies that resemble my dog as a puppy.  I wondered what the purpose was for having so many dogs.  Would they become guard dogs? Watch dogs?  Vermin catchers?  I sensed the brothers thought it was strange whenever I would go to spend time with the dogs.  Then I realized…

Before coming to Vietnam I talked to the previous SLM and he mentioned that sometimes exotic dishes were served, including dog meat.  My worst fears were confirmed when one of the brothers told me that those dogs being raised in back were likely to be eaten in the future.  He tried to soften the blow by reassuring me that this was only done on very rare occasions.  I was told that this is a common practice in Vietnam, where seemingly nothing goes to waste.  It explains why they thought it was odd that I would pay any particular attention to the dogs.  I guess it would be a lot like watching one of them back home playing with chickens.  They joked that I could keep a puppy in my room.  The question is, would they become suspicious if they all happened to find their way inside?  Here’s to hoping that my new buddies don’t become brunch!  
Seriously, dude?!...Haven't you heard of Turkey?!

I will only post a handful pictures with each entry and upload the remainder in a Dropbox account in case anyone wants access to the full set.  I'll figure out that part a little later.

That’s all for now.  Hopefully there will be time for additional updates in the coming weeks…

Monday, August 22, 2016


I'm looking forward to starting the next year/few years at the Bakanja Center in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.  It was great getting to know my fellow SLMs this summer at orientation in NY/NJ.  Hopefully we will all have an enriching experience at our mission sites.

Right now I seem to be stuck on a mountain (and going a bit stir crazy)...
The embassy is still processing my visa and the expected August departure date has been rescheduled to mid-September.

At least I will have a couple more weeks to butcher practice my French before arrival.

Updates pending on the other side...