Rich and poor, north and south, city and countryside – Father John Kerns, pastor of St. Juan Diego Parish, witnessed it all during a visit to Vietnam thanks to his guide, Father Petrus Bình Hoang, pastor of St. Stephen Parish.
Father Hoang, whose homeland is Vietnam, is chaplain of the Southeast Asian Relief Association, a Portland organization that provides disaster relief and humanitarian aid for the leprosy inflicted, needy and poor Southeast Asians.
“Everything is two way street,” Father Hoang said. “Helping the people in Vietnam is also helping myself.”
It helps him overcome the individualism and materialism, he said, and reminds him how fortunate his life is, blessed by God, family and people at St. Stephen.
Years ago, Father Hoang invited Father Kerns to travel with him to Vietnam, which he left at age 16 when his mother woke him in the middle of the night and said: “Go with your uncle and do whatever he tells you.” They boarded a boat with other political refugees and eventually made it to Portland, where the rest Father Hoang’s family eventually joined him.
For a month this winter, the two priests toured and conducted charity work. They celebrated the Vietnamese New Year “Tet Nguyen Dan” there in early February.
During the trip, the two priests carried out work for SARA, founded by Portland resident Kim Dung. They delivered food, clothing, medicine and gifts to children in orphanages, residents of leprosy communities and patients in clinics.
“It was heartwarming to see the gratitude,” Father Kerns said. “And it was inspiring to see the dedicated sisters, priests and lay Catholics who spent themselves in tireless service for those in great need.”
The seamstress from Portland started the non-profit after visiting in 1994 and seeing the plight of the people who live in leprosy camps throughout the north and south.
“It broke my heart to see the condition of the lepers. Some with no hands, some without legs or feet, and many with other facial and bodily disfigurements,” Dung said. “When I tried to approach the people, they all stepped back and often hid because of their embarrassment over their personal disfigurements that were a result of leprosy.”
Upon her return, she began collecting whatever extra money should could from her seamstress job, eventually saving $10,000, which she used to buy and distribute medicine, clothes, food, and other supplies. Since 1998, Dung has returned every year.
Dung was also in Vietnam at the time of their trip, so the priests traveled with her for parts of their stay. They visited a clinic built on the grounds of the motherhouse of the Sisters of Our Lady of Unity in Bắc Ninh, coordinated by SARA, with the help of benefactors like Archbishop John Vlazny.
During their trip, the priests also visited Gia Hưng, a town that had been severely impacted by a flood the previous year. The flood was so deep that water rose to the keyhole on the town’s Catholic church door, a building that is at a higher elevation than the village, where many parishioners were severely impacted.
“Especially impressive was the tenacity of the Catholic people of Vietnam,” said Father Kerns. “For example, it appeared that every church is full of men, women and children for 5:30 a.m. daily Mass.”
Father Hoang travels to Vietnam twice a year to volunteer at leper colonies and orphanages. On this trip, he said his most notable moment was visiting an orphanage, where a teen girl sang a song she had composed.
The lyrics told her story of being born blind, about wishing she could see the sunrise and sunset, wanting to see the faces of animals or the color of flowers.
She sang that one day she could see these thing through the eyes of her heart that was fully filled by the loving and caring of people like the Sisters at the orphanage, Father Hoang said.
Father Kerns shared photos and narrative of their entire trip on his blog, http://frjohninvietnam.blogspot.com/.