Seminarian Truong Le will return to Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union this fall to complete his final year of studies before ordination to the priesthood in the spring. As part of his formation as a Divine Word Missionary, Truong fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP), or Overseas Training Program (OTP) as it is known in other parts of the world, in Thailand. CTP typically consists of two to three years of living and doing missionary work in a culture other than one’s own. In this article, which was orginally published on the Society of the Divine Word-Australia Province website, Truong reflects upon that experience.
By Truong Le SVD
Mission and culture are essential characteristics of an SVD, and with the two years Cross-Cultural Training Program, I was given a taste in different ministerial settings: teaching English at the local high school, working with Vietnamese migrant workers, visiting the poor, engaging in parish ministries, and helping HIV/AIDS patients, in particular, teenagers living with HIV at The Mother of Perpetual Help Foundation in Nongbualamphu, Thailand.
A sense of naïveté is inevitably attached to the intention of working with orphans, particularly those who are even more vulnerable, being HIV positive and/or living with disabilities. When seeing the children playing with each other at our center, I couldn’t help but ask what they have done to deserve this. They are branded and labelled since birth, and they have had to carry the burden that comes with the illness without fully realizing why.
Sympathetically, I pondered what I can do to help. My pondering was more in terms of how much can I compensate for what they have suffered–these unwarranted sufferings from the illness, witnessing the death of their parents and growing up without them, being unwanted by relatives, being rejected by society, and, most devastating of all, the feeling of being not good enough for others.
During the last few months of my CTP, I was assigned full time to Ban Mae Marie, which is a subsidiary of the SVD Foundation, caring for abandoned teenagers. The makeup of this place is quite diverse as we recently accepted elderly patients from the hospice due to an overflow.
Perhaps the best description of my work is a mix between a bus driver and a guidance counselor. I work primarily with the teenagers—driving them to school, to the hospital, and basically everywhere else needed. I began somewhat of a counseling session with them to touch base on their well-being and how they feel about living here. The idea behind this program is to build trusting relationship with the children.
This experience has stretched my understanding of love; that love is being generous in spite of trouble and ungratefulness.
Gradually, I became more involved with the daily lives of the teenagers. The basic necessities of food, shelter, and safety are provided for by the foundation. On my part, I tried to do as much as I could for the children.
On a weekly basis, I would take the children for ice cream or to see a movie. During the school breaks, we would go on vacation. Nevertheless, what I was called to do, as I came to realize, was not just give them their needs and wants but rather have the willingness to share my life with them. I had to consider and become attune to the needs of each individual, considering his or her physical and emotional needs, health issues and disabilities. The difficulty, or challenge, was having to open up and enter into the messiness of the whole ordeal, knowing full well of my own limitations and inexperience. What I can give them is, ultimately, myself.
Disciplining a child is not an easy task, just ask any parent. Now, imagine a 28-year-old, ill-equipped religious missionary with no parenting experience having to care for an HIV-positive child with mental disabilities prone to epileptic seizures and frequent emotional outburst.
Working with this 16-year-old boy was uniquely challenging. At first, I was alarmed when he had a seizure because I was the only adult around. I did not know what to do.
Things became easier as I became more educated about the matter and learned to just let him be. Periodically, he would throw a tantrum, being unable to control his emotions. The staff would then call me to intervene, and my interpretation of intervening was, again, let him be.
I did not respond to any of his emotional uproars and sought to speak with him when he had settled down. To me, he’s quite an intelligent young man. He just needs someone to be patient and explain to him what is acceptable and what is not. Some have told me that he could not benefit from counseling due to his mental state, but I believe that we can help him to understand and practice healthy behavior to cope with strong emotions.
I would not be as naïve to say that caring for this sweet little boy with a tragic history is smooth, easy, and personally gratifying. With every situation or circumstance that came forth, I had to find a moment of calmness from which I can see that things will be fine despite the chaos and hesitancy. Things will always be out of our control, but how we deal with that is up to us. In my case, I pray, hoping that God will pave a way for us to get out of the mess. In looking back, we would always be more grateful for each other for being present for one another during tough times.
Working with teenagers is not without all the dramas of adolescence–love, relationship, and the insistent need for personal freedom. Trivial or not, these are things that give them stress. If I don’t get into the messiness of their lives, they’ll give me stress later. So, I talked with them about everything–things that are happening in their lives.
Most importantly, I have to be interested. The children responded well as I talked with them about decision making. I helped them to consider the consequences of their actions or decisions and urged them to choose a fruitful path. This method works to a degree, but in the end, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is in letting go. They will have to make their own decisions no matter how insistent you are on the “right” path.
This experience has stretched my understanding of love; that love is being generous in spite of trouble and ungratefulness. But isn’t this something that we all can relate to? Aren’t we all running away from something that is persistently waiting for us with love and tenderness?
The Word became flesh and hung upon the cross to say the same words that ache in my heart that night out searching for the child, that is, “come home.” That moment, as I reflect back, clarified for me Jesus’ mission—that is, hearing God’s aching heart calling each one of us to return from our wayward path.
I, too, have left and fallen into my own pit of destruction and sinfulness. Yet, in these very moments, I hear clearly Jesus’ voice calling me home to where I am loved and cared for. Jesus assures all of us of God’s love that through him we hear the silent whisper from God, “you are my beloved [child], with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). God continues to wait eagerly and persistently for us no matter how far we manage to get away because in God’s eyes we are good and we are loved. This is the place to return to wherever we are in our lives, wherever we are in our restless journeys.