By Fr. Joseph Pham Quoc Van, O.P.
Last Christmas 2013 I spent 10 days helping the tiny Vietnamese Catholic community in Malaysia celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world. I would like to share with readers some of my experience based on what I as an eye witness learned from doing pastoral care in a land of Muslim majority.
What I Have Seen And Heard
Just a day after my arrival to Malaysia, I took a bus to Kuantan, around 300 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur. Among the Vietnamese working in that city there were some dozens of Catholics. With the help of a Vietnamese Franciscan sister who for seven years had been serving them as a spiritual directress they were preparing for Christmas celebration for both Christians and non-Christians.
I was moved by the first hand shaking with a worker whose hard and rough hands could tell me how difficult it was to earn a living in an alien soil. During just that short stay with them I heard countless stories of their ordeal of working in health threatening factories, living in dark and dirty lodging places, and not being legally documented, not even a single word of English. All of that was bad enough to turn them into victims of abusing employers and policemen. After a raid by the local security forces they had to look for money to buy their freedom. On pay days all forms of danger crouching somewhere—sometimes inside one’s very lodging house—awaited the prey. They were many times victimized by their fellow countrymen.
Generally speaking the Vietnamese can find a little bit better paid job in Malaysia than that in their own country. Earning some US $300 a month, however, they make just little savings after paying for food, house renting, visa processing fees, and job centers. Some of them working for 12 hours a day in 5 years can only save US $1,000 which they send home to support their families. That means that they only make a savings of US $200 a year. Very few find a higher salaried position.
Saying goodbye to Kuantan I went back to the capital city. The Vietnamese Catholic Diaspora celebrated this year’s Christmas more joyfully thanks to the presence of the Bishop of Can Tho Diocese, His Excellency Stephen Tri Buu Thien, accompanied by 5 priests and 2 religious sisters. Joining in the Holy Mass were some 800 workers.
At the Holy Mass on December 25, I solemnized the wedding of a worker couple. Despite the absence of their parents, relatives and friends, and a very simple reception afterward, the two gratefully started the building of their new family with the heartfelt love and care of the Malaysian Catholic Church in the person of His Excellency Murphy Pakiam,Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, of Monsignor James Gnana, in charge of Saint John’s Cathedral, and of many more people of good will.
Besides the Kuantan community there are two more bigger communities: one in Kuala Lumpur, the other in Klang, about 50 kilometers away.
Although I only worked for the Vietnamese migrants for few days there, I was convinced that the presence of Vietnamese priests and religious sisters would mean a lot for those who leaving behind homes and families were looking for a way in order to escape poverty.
The Holy Mass in Vietnamese on Sunday morning December 29 in Klang closed my ten days pastoral trip in Malaysia.
Leaving the Vietnamese workers there I returned to my daily occupation with a heavy heart.
What would the Vietnamese Church do to lend a helping hand to our brothers and sisters who have to struggle for survival in foreign countries?
What would the pastors in many parishes do to care for not only the 99 sheep safely kept at home but above all for the wandering sheep in search for a better pasture?
Would the church authorities in charge of migrants set up, not just ad hoc projects, but long-term and effective plans to provide overseas workers with necessary forms of pastoral care?
Resounding in my mind is the keynote sentence of the Fourth Gospel’s Prologue: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14).
Why am I, a disciple of the Word, still unable just to stay beside my sisters and brothers?
Kuala Lumpur, December 29, 2013