Joseph Sung A Phia, an ethnic Hmong, decided to embrace Catholicism after members of the faith fed and clothed him when he was left destitute by floods that destroyed his home in Vietnam’s Lai Chau province.
It wasn’t just their generosity that sparked his conversion, however. He said the experience of having Catholics open their arms to him and his family, despite the fact they were not Christians and were dressed in ragged clothes, showed him how this was “a religion of love.”
“I am very happy to know God and to have become one of His children. I hope to spend the rest of my life praising and honoring Him,” the 77-year-old told ucanews.com in broken Vietnamese.
“We are extremely grateful to those Catholics who consoled us and offered us food, clothes, and blankets, and allowed us to stay with them after severe floods damaged our home last June,” he added.
His neighbors say he rarely leaves home without a rosary around his neck nowadays, and that he regularly attends community prayers on weekends at the house of a Catholic family in the community.
Phia’s family was among 10 Hmong families baptized by Father Peter Phan Kim Huan at Lai Chau parish on Dec. 19. The number of baptized stood at 62 in total.
They hailed from mission stations in Ho Mit and Trung Dong, in the province’s Tan Uyen district. That meant the newly converted parishioners had to travel 70-100 kilometers to attend the baptism.
Since the mission stations were established at Christmas in 2016, the number of Hmong Catholics who attend services there has jumped from 70 to 230, Father Huan said.
The priest, who provides pastoral care for 2,400 local Catholics, said many faithful gather at people’s houses to pray on Sundays because they have no chapel.
The authorities in this officially atheist, communist country do not recognize religious activities nor allow priests from other jurisdictions to pay pastoral visits to people in other areas.
“They show how strong their faith is by courageously erecting altars in their homes to praise God, by removing old altars, and by wearing rosaries around their necks,” he said.
They teach Catechism to one another in their native Hmong language and spread their faith to friends and relatives, he added.
Father Huan, 62, said Hmong Catholics appreciated the church’s efforts to help them overcome many of the difficulties caused by last summer’s floods. Some 50 households had their houses destroyed.
In the wake of the floods, the authorities bent the rules by letting the priest pay visits to offer humanitarian aid. He also led benefactors from other areas to pitch in.
“We built 14 houses for those whose homes had totally collapsed due to all the flooding. Each house was at least 50 square meters and cost about 90 million dong [US$3,900], “ Father Huan said, adding the bill was picked up by Caritas Vietnam, the church’s social arm, and other benefactors.
Providing basic supplies for victims of natural disasters was proving to be the most successful way of evangelizing in the area, he said.
Joseph Sung A Dua, 40, said his nine-member family had to stay in a six-square-meter tent and suffer from the elements for months after the floods passed.
“Father Huan built a new 60-square-meter house for us last month. We are thrilled to live in such a big place with a working toilet,” Dua said.
“God sent Father Huan to help us in our time of need, so we believe in God and follow Him.”
The rest of Dua’s family converted to Catholicism in December.