I have just returned from another visit to Vietnam where we took a group of people associated with us for an immersion experience working with the crucified of our world. Our visit involved work in 4 separate places of ministry: The Phu My Orphanage, for mentally and physically disabled children; the Mai Tam centre, run by the Camillian Fathers, caring for children with HIV and a hospice for people dying with AIDS; a Buddhist soup kitchen; and the Francis Shelter. I shared with all of you about my experience at the Phu My orphanage after my first visit to Vietnam in the blog article I published on the 14th of February, 2014, so this time I wanted to share something of my experience and reflections on the other 3 areas of ministry from a JPIC perspective.
One thing you can say about Vietnam is that food is cheap and there is a lot of variety and availability of vegetables, fruits, meat and fish. Thanks to this, our group raised money to pay for the food distributed by a Buddhist Soup kitchen where we volunteered for 4 days. We divided our group into 2 teams of about 8 each and each group worked for 2 alternative days at the kitchen.
The soup kitchen is one of a number operated by members of the Buddhist lay community. The Vietnamese version of Buddhism has a strong ethic of charity work, with the idea that it improves your Karma for the next reincarnation. The soup kitchen we worked at prepares meals for the poor day patients and their visiting family at a local Cancer hospital. Cancer treatment is very expensive. Patients who stay overnight get meals from the hospital, but not day patients. Also, if their family come in from the country to visit and care for them, the hospital does not care for them in terms of meals or accommodation. They are all poor and find it hard to make ends meet, so the soup kitchen prepares meals for them. The kitchen is run by a battery of volunteers who work each day in the food preparation and distribution. People then come in to collect meals for their family with plastic containers to put the food in. Being Buddhist, the food is all vegetarian.
Our role was to work a morning shift serving meals to those who came to collect them. To ensure the meals got to the right place, people coming to collect meals had to produce a voucher that the hospital gave them to show that they really were caring for a patient in the hospital. We served meals for 700 people in the morning shift. We then helped chop up vegetables for the volunteers to prepare for the afternoon shift. We were given lunch there, and had a couple of hours off in the early afternoon, then returned to serve another 500 meals for the afternoon shift. It was full on work and in the intense heat of Saigon, was draining, but rewarding.
The Mai Tam centre is run by the Camillian Fathers and is a orphanage and school for children with HIV. I discovered that there is quite a stigma attached to HIV in Vietnam. These children contracted the disease from parents who got infected using dirty needles from drug use or through prostitution. The children are well cared for here and the Priest in charge was in the process of building a new residence next door so that children could move out of the rented property and so that he could divide the group into girls in one building and boys in the other. Some staff here are volunteers and others are paid as being a school, the children need to be taught by professional teachers. The Order also runs a hostel for people dying with AIDS, which we also visited. The hostel is run by Fr. Dominic, who is a saint of a man. The hostel caters to about 20 patients, and the goal is to care for them and give them dignity at this latter stage in the disease’ progress where a hospital can do nothing more for them. At the school we interacted with the children and at the hostel we basically listened to Fr. Dominic describe his work and briefly visited those patients who allowed us to spend a bit of time with them. We also made donations to the order to help them in this work.
The final place we visited is the Francis Shelter. This is a place that cares for people who have mental and physical disabilities. It is completely run by dedicated Catholic volunteers. Our own Passionist students volunteer here as well. There are about 5 permanent full time volunteers and the rest are part time or temporary. This small band of dedicated people are caring for around 90 patients: 30 adults and the rest children.
Given the short staffing of the place, we were involved in everything, from planting papaya trees in the back yard to supplement the diet, to cleaning the wards, to feeding the patients. It is confronting work, as one wonders what future some of these severely disabled children can expect. We were told that many of these genetic defects are a result of the use of Agent Orange during the war. How much the effects of Agent Orange still impact on causing genetic defects is beyond my expertise to confirm. The disabilities range from autism, to severe mental disability and even hydrocephalus. It is confronting seeing a little girl of about one year old whose body weighs 3 kilos and whose head weighs 7 kilos. Our order has been asked to take a greater role in responsibility for this place. We are still looking at all this and if we can do it, but there certainly is great need here.
My reflections on these experiences are that in developing or third world countries, a lot of people who could slip through the cracks are picked up by the incredible and dedicated work of charity organizations. In Vietnam these are mostly run by Buddhists and Catholics. The government clearly recognises that a need is being filled and so allow these organisations to do their good work.
Some would argue that charity organizations perhaps stop people from taking up the responsibility for meeting the challenges of their life situation and finding their own way of caring for themselves. I think this is mean spirited thinking that basically wants to alleviate a conscience that feels guilty for the fact that it doesn’t want to take on responsibility for the poor and disenfranchised. Charities do tremendous good for people who would otherwise be in unsalvageable conditions and situations. The care they offer to those who would otherwise have no way of surviving, like children abandoned by parents who cannot cope with their mental and physical disabilities or infection with HIV, is truly life saving work. As well, the temporary support offered to the poor by the soup kitchens as well as the education provided by the school run by the Camillian Fathers, offers hope and resources for the future. It empowers people to not only survive, but thrive.
The reality of many developing and third world countries is that the government cannot do everything. A country like Vietnam is a small country in terms of land mass, but has a population of 90 million (about 3-4 times that of Australia). There is, of course, corruption as in all third world or developing countries. In many ways the corruption is less prevalent in a communist country like Vietnam than in a democratic country like the Philippines or a number of Latin American countries. I can tell you that I felt a lot safer in Vietnam than I ever have in the Philippines or Brazil.
There are fears carried by communist regime in countries like Vietnam or China concerning religion and the influence this has on the people. Yet, the government of Vietnam is not so stupid that it would look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when people who would fall through the cracks otherwise are picked up and given dignity and hope.
The experience has taught me never to doubt the good work that charity organizations perform in such situations. Our financial contributions to such organizations do make a difference. If you get the chance to go and contribute, not only financially, but of your time and energy in volunteer work, I’m sure you will find it, as I have, a rewarding education into the better side of human nature.