It was 40 years ago outside Saigon when Chung Nguyen, 50, saw the horrifying results of a U.S. rocket. Nguyen’s uncle had managed to rush family members into a tunnel for shelter, but did not make it down himself and was blown apart by the blast.
“I have seen terrible things,” says Nguyen, standing beneath a towering fir at Portland’s Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, better known as the Grotto.
He and about 6,000 other worshipers came from all over the Northwest and California for this month’s annual Freedom Mass and pilgrimage, the largest regular Catholic gathering in Oregon.
Cultures represented included Filipino, Eritrean, Laotian, Hmong and Polish. The majority of worshipers were Vietnamese. Refugees from Vietnam created the Freedom Mass in Portland in 1975, giving thanks to God for having escaped their war-torn nation and its communist overlords.
Many people standing in the wooded sanctuary on July 4 have stories like Nguyen’s. Despite the shower of American bombs on his Catholic farming village near the U.S. base at Long Binh, he bears no grudge. He has since read that hostile agents fed U.S. intelligence officers false reports about communist troops in the area.
His family had already faced tragedy at the hands of the communists; his brother had joined the South Vietnamese army and was killed by North Vietnamese troops in 1968.
As a boy, hearing B-52s overhead as he lay down to sleep at night, Nguyen yearned to go to America. For years, various members of his family attempted escape, but were caught and detained.
In 1977, a Vietnamese priest told them to try again, confident for some reason they would not be seen. Led by their devout farmer father, the whole family dashed to an over-crowded boat and though police were in view, the plan worked. Then, the family somehow averted pirates and crossed the South China Sea to Malaysia.
“We believe God really helped us,” says Nguyen, who still sometimes dreams he is being pursued by communists.
In 1978, word came through that a sponsor from Oregon wanted to welcome the Nguyens to America. Greeting them at the Portland airport was Father Morton Park, head of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Portland.
Nguyen has since moved to Seattle, where he has two jobs, one in a small engine repair shop with his brother and the other with Boeing. His only son is now a U.S. Marine, stationed in Japan for the time being.
During a commemoration for soldiers who died in Vietnam and for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who died trying to flee the country, tears welled up in the eyes of many worshipers. Those gathered on the Grotto grounds knew and loved many of the dead and realize how blessed they are to have survived.
The pilgrimage weekend began with Saturday seminars at Our Lady of Lavang Church in Northeast Portland. On Sunday, a procession in honor of Mary made its way down Sandy Boulevard to the Grotto, passing many Vietnamese-owned businesses, from restaurants to car-repair shops.
“It is our God who is the cause of our joy and the source of all of our freedom,” Archbishop John Vlazny told worshipers on the cloudy, mild Fourth of July. “Independence only goes so far. God wants us to place our lives in his hands.”
Eighteen altar boys led the Mass procession and 10 Vietnamese priests and the archbishop followed. The liturgy was a spiritual smorgasbord of languages, including English, Vietnamese, Eritrean, Tagalog, Laotian, Hmong and Latin.
Graceful dancers performed for God and for the crowd, having been instructed by a group of Vietnamese nuns, the Sister Adorers of the Holy Cross.
Eritrean women in finery prayed quietly and Poles in traditional dress proudly occupied rows near the front. A Guatemalan man helped his wife perch on a stone wall so she could see the archbishop. These people, too, have their stories of escaping oppression and strife.
Quoc Doan, 41, came with his wife and three children from Seattle, having made the annual trip for nine years.
Doan, a diesel mechanic for a school district, converted to Catholicism when he was married. His family tradition was Buddhist.
Most Vietnamese Catholics attend the Freedom Mass, he says. “It’s traditional,” he explains, holding his two-year-old son, Anthony, and waving away a mosquito. Doan is resolved to keep bringing his children and hopes they do the same in the future.
Born in Vietnam, he and his mother paid to board a boat leaving the country in 1982. The plan was to rejoin his father, a South Vietnamese soldier who had escaped a communist prison in 1975.
Doan was 13 when he boarded the small, crowded craft bound for the Philippines. Not long after the voyage started, engine trouble hit. Several men got the boat moving again, but then — as happened to so many Vietnamese boat people — Thai pirates boarded and took everyone’s money and food. The raiders even swiped the compass.
“They left us to die,” Doan says.
Then a storm hit. It blew the wandering boat into the Gulf of Thailand. When time seemed to be running out for the waning passengers, a Thai coast guard ship arrived and towed the hapless travelers to shore. Doan and his family spent two years in a crowded, squalid refugee camp with 20,000 others before coming to the U.S.
“If we keep the young people in our culture and language, they know the story and they can feel thankful, too,” Doan says.
A Vietnamese youth group, some in scout-like uniforms with kerchiefs, stands on one of the back paths before Mass begins. As the playing of the National Anthem ends, they explain that their parents have been bringing them to the Freedom Mass from Portland, Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle and elsewhere for years. The teens say they are proud to carry on the tradition and are proud to be Catholic.
“We are holy kids,” jokes 15-year-old Andrew Ta, making the whole group laugh, but he has made a point.
Destiny Vu, 14, chimes in: “Going to church is fun.”
“All these cultures are together,” says Katt Nguyen, 14. “It’s not just the Vietnamese. That’s really special.”