BARLING — It took two years of preparation, but 16 college students from Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Barling were able to spend two weeks in a rural area in southern Vietnam on a mission trip.
On May 29, Sister Maria Hoa Nguyen, OP, director of the parish’s Eucharistic Youth program, led the students to Giong Rieng near the Mekong River.
Sister Maria, who came to the United States in 2009 to work in Vietnamese youth ministry, said the trip required two years of fundraising and preparation.
“All the students paid their own airfare and expenses, but we raised money to help the families we were visiting through garage sales, egg roll sales and donations from the Knights of Columbus and others,” the Dominican sister said.
Sister Maria’s motherhouse is near Ho Chi Minh City and she made arrangements for lodging, transportation and guides in Giong Rieng through her order and local diocesan priests. She used some of the funds to finance a medical mission, recruiting Vietnamese dentists and medical professionals to spend a few days in Giong Rieng with the group.
Tam Nguyen, a University of Arkansas - Fort Smith student who came to the United States when he was 13, was eager to introduce his young adult group to the place where he and most of the group’s parents had been born.
“I grew up in a small town in a lower-class area. I shared a bed with my parents and my sister and lived in a home without a bathroom and a kitchen without a gas stove. Moving to America gave us a better environment and more opportunity.”
While Nguyen knew what conditions he would face as a missionary, arriving in Giong Rieng was a culture shock for most of the other members. Sister Maria, who, in addition to leading Eucharistic Youth, attends college at UAFS with many of them, said that introducing her students to rural Vietnamese life was one of her goals.
“This trip is for them,” she said. “They visited a blessed place and saw that people could lead a happy life without all the comfort they know here. The people there thank God, and we too could thank God because we were able to help them. When we got home we would meet in sharing circles and talk about how some people here are not happy with their lives. We could understand that happiness doesn’t depend on how much we have.”
The group stayed in a local rectory and traveled by boat to meet with families each day. They brought enough money to finance 13 modest thatched-roof homes and spent one day leveling the land for a home. They also financed a footbridge over the river to replace one that was falling apart. On other days they filled large jugs with clean water and brought water and non-perishable food to families.
Amy Le, a UAFS biology major who hopes to become a dentist, enjoyed helping with the dental clinic.
“I learned that very few people have insurance, and even though a simple cleaning is only $8.69, not many people could afford twice-yearly cleanings,” she said. “It showed me we take our regular cleanings for granted whereas people we saw were trying so hard just to get fillings.”
As the missionaries distributed notebooks to the children in the villages, Le was surprised to learn that parents have to pay $50 a year for their children to attend school, a small fortune for many of them. The sisters have a convent school adjacent to the rectory where the missionaries stayed and are able to provide free education to as many of the villages’ children as they can accommodate, but some need to attend public school.
“We gave money to families we visited,” Le said. “Most of the time they would give it to the church or others they said needed it more, but they were so grateful to get tuition money for their children’s school.”
The area the missionaries visited was primarily Buddhist, although the villagers had a friendly relationship with the local priest and sisters. The group prayed with every family they visited.
“We got up at 4:30 each morning to attend Mass,” Sister Mary said. “We needed Jesus to give us the strength to do our work each day.”
Tam Nguyen found the experience of sharing his faith with Buddhist and non-Catholic families unforgettable.
“We taught the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be when we visited families, and we even held their hands while reading the prayers. We sang Christian songs with the children. It was sensational interacting with them and seeing how they were intrigued to learn about the Catholic faith.”
Sister Mary said one grandmother was baptized during the mission trip.
The Eucharistic Youth group shared their experience with Sacred Heart of Mary parishioners during Masses July 21-22.
“I really wish one day I could provide each family we visited with a house that’s in much better condition, clean water and healthy food,” Tam Nguyen said.
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