Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the University of Southern California’s Public Diplomacy Magazine.
The rain began to fall at dawn.
First in small drops, one after the other, pooling in the boat’s hull and filling the thirsty refugees’ cups. Some sipped slowly, cherishing each drop. Others drank as fast as the rain fell.
Then morning broke. The clouds began to darken. Rain came down in sheets, soaking their tattered clothes and sunburnt skin.
The afternoon brought wind. First an initial gust, chilling their tired bodies. Then a gale, sending rain sideways and churning the angry sea. The small boat rose and fell with the swell. Waves as big as buildings. Clouds that blackened the sky.
Together, the refugees huddled together for warmth in their boat. When night came, they could not see the stars, or the moon.
In despair, they began to pray.
Facing persecution for their spiritual beliefs by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the refugees had narrowly escaped their native home. They were among a great flood of refugees to flee the war-ravaged country in search of freedom. It was 1979.
Now they were in a boat without food in the middle of a tropical storm swirling across the South China Sea. The rain did not stop for 10 days.
They prayed their Rosary each morning and night, asking Mary, the mother of Jesus, to safely guide them to a new home.
Among the refugees was Thanh Thai Nguyen. The young man prayed with the others, and went further. He made a personal vow:
Save us, Blessed Mother, and I will dedicate my life to working in your service.
The refugees – 26 members of the Nguyen family – survived the storm in their 28-foot boat. On their 18th day at sea, they spotted land. Despite their hunger, they rowed, safely reaching the Philippines. After 10 months in a refugee camp, they arrived in Texas. Their new life in the U.S. had begun.
Thanh Thai Nguyen kept good on his word. He became a Catholic priest.
Today, he is the highest-ranking Vietnamese Catholic prelate in the U.S., serving as Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, one of the largest and most diverse faith communities in the U.S. Many refugees who fled their homeland during the Vietnam War settled in Orange County, and today the region is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.
Among Bishop Thanh Nguyen’s priorities is strengthening ties between Catholics in Orange County and Vietnam, a country with a long and bloody history of religious persecution. Although Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has appeared to make strides in creating a spiritually-open society, religious persecution – especially against Christians – remains high, according to Open Doors USA, an Orange County-based non-profit tracking religious freedom across the globe. Outspoken Catholics are targeted, arrested and sentenced, and Catholic congregations have had their land taken by the government for development and financial gain, according to the non-profit.
Traveling in the country can be challenging for clerics, who often face questioning and see their passports scrutinized by Customs officials at Vietnamese ports of entry.
This type of persecution does not stop the faithful from attending church, and there are about 4 million Catholics in Vietnam. In December, Hanoi’s new Archbishop, Joseph Vũ Văn Thiên, was formally installed at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the capital city’s Old Quarter, the celebration attracting high-ranking Catholics and officials from the secular government.
Among the attendees were Bishop Thanh Nguyen and Bishop Kevin Vann, who leads the Diocese of Orange. Their attendance at the ceremony marked a renewed commitment for a historic relationship with their counterparts in Vietnam. The two Orange County bishops are leading an effort to create a “sister diocese” partnership between the Diocese of Orange and the Archdiocese of Hanoi centering on clergy training and opportunities for charitable work among lay Catholics. Priests will have opportunities to gain pastoral experience working in Vietnamese parishes, while Orange County Catholics can participate in outreach with the poor, teach English to students and support schools in northern Vietnam.
The partnership is expected to be officially ratified this summer.
“We may be separated by an ocean, but our Catholic communities share a strong bond,” Bishop Thanh Nguyen said. “We’re excited for this historic opportunity to work together toward common goals – education and spiritual growth. Our sister diocese partnership will create new opportunities to strengthen our communities and further the important work being done globally by the Catholic Church.”
The partnership will build on work already happening in Vietnam by Catholics in California. New schools with curriculum based on Western-style teaching methods are sprouting in rural regions. Among them: a preschool in northern Vietnam’s Thái Bình Province. The newly-built school rises next to a Catholic convent, enrolls about 130 students from mostly low-income households and is supported with funding by an Orange County Catholic nonprofit called Companions in Grace.
Binh Minh Preschool exposes students to Western-style education methods in a Communist-run country experiencing rapid population growth.
About 23 percent of the country’s 97 million inhabitants are under the age of 14, according to United Nations data. Vietnam’s economy is also growing rapidly, but residents often struggle to pay tuition to send their children to good schools. Many families with students at Binh Minh receive financial aid directly through the preschool and Companions in Grace. Students’ parents work as farmers, mechanics and in the nearby factories.
At the school, students learn to read and write in English, are exposed to basic science concepts and encouraged to express themselves through art. Run by the Dominican Sisters of Thái Bình, the school uses curriculum based on Montessori teaching methods and is modeled on St. Columban Catholic School in Garden Grove. The school’s goal is to give Vietnamese students the tools they’ll need to compete in the global marketplace.
“This is a new method of teaching in Vietnam,” Sr. Maria Mai Diep told me as we walked through the school’s hallways, visiting classrooms that were bright, organized and clean. Bookshelves were lined with titles in Vietnamese and English.
“Students are being introduced to English and given opportunities to focus on problem solving – which requires them to pay attention,” Diep added. “We see that students are more focused through the day.”
For Bishop Thanh Nguyen, the trip to Vietnam in December was his third trip back to his native country since he originally fled nearly four decades ago, and his first traveling in the country openly as a priest. Among the stops on his journey was the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in rural central Vietnam.
The shrine, considered the country’s holiest site, represents an apparition of the Virgin Mary shared by a group of Vietnamese Catholics in the late 18th century fleeing religious persecution. A shrine dedicated to the apparition is being constructed at the Christ Cathedral Campus in Garden Grove, the seat of the Diocese of Orange.
At a small outdoor chapel next to the shrine in Vietnam, Bishop Thanh Nguyen celebrated Mass – one of the most important and solemn responsibilities of a Catholic priest. His homily focused on suffering and grace.
“Human suffering and divine grace is at the center and the essence of the story of Our Lady of La Vang,” he said. “It’s a story that continues today and why so many people flock here – to seek divine grace so they can rise above their suffering.”
After Mass, Bishop Thanh Nguyen prayed at the base of the shrine and met with pilgrims, many of whom had traveled many miles. Then he reflected on his own journey.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to travel Vietnam,” he said, “it feels like I have returned home.”