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