During a three-year-long cultural training program with the Society of the Divine Word in Mozambique, Quy Ngoc Dang suffered bouts of malaria once—sometimes twice—a month.
Instead of dissuading him, the ailment strengthened his resolve to become a religious missionary. On Sat., Sept. 20, Dang and three other men professed perpetual vows with the Society of the Divine Word at Techny, Ill. Through this action, Quy Ngoc Dang, Tuan Anh Mai, Tam Duy Nguyen and Linh Duy Pham become the newest members of the 133-year-old religious community of more than 6,000 priests and brothers in 71 countries around the globe.
“They have traveled great distances to arrive at this destination—figuratively and literally,” said Rev. Mark Weber, SVD, provincial of the Society of the Divine Word’s Chicago Province.
All born in Vietnam, the men came to the United States in the 1990s as teenagers and young adults.
When Quy Ngoc Dang, now 34, entered the United States in 1991, he dreamt of becoming a
mechanical engineer. “The idea of becoming a religious or a priest didn’t enter my mind,” he said.
But a newspaper ad, inviting him to explore Divine Word College, changed the course of his life. His time in Africa furthered that path.
“Here in the United States, we have choices, but there, they don’t have choices,” Dang said. “They didn’t choose to be poor. They’re poor by circumstance. We, as religious, choose to be poor.”
Similarly, Tuan Anh Mai, 35, arrived in the United States in 1994 with his parents and five of his seven siblings. His father, a South Vietnamese government employee in the 1960s and ’70s, spent five years in a reeducation camp before being allowed to emigrate.
“Being a missionary is more than I thought,” said Mai, who had a chance to experience missionary work in Taiwan. “The SVDs work together to support and care for each other while being available to provide help and support to others in the society.”
In the eyes of the Vietnamese Communist government, Tam Duy Nguyen, 34, had two strikes again him: an uncle who was a Roman Catholic priest and a father who served with and died alongside American soldiers during the war. Years later, Nguyen’s mother, a widow with seven children, feared that her son would be drafted to fight against the Cambodian army.
Few soldiers returned from Cambodia, Nguyen said. At age 18, he managed to escape and went to the Philippines, where he lived in a refugee camp for a year before coming to the United States.
Nguyen learned French in order to do his cross-cultural training in Togo. His parishioners in Togo expressed respectful amazement that he was raised in a colonized country, became successful in the United States and then chose to live with them in Africa.
“I’m a witness to what poverty means [having grown up in a similar situation],” he said. “Now, to be with them, I’m a living witness. I can go back to poverty with empathy.”
Like Nguyen’s father, Pham’s father also fought for South Vietnam. At age 15, Pham, now 36, became a surrogate father for his younger brother when they left their homeland. He distinctly remembers the night when 24 people snuck out from shore in a 27-foot boat. “Police shot and hit the boat, but fortunately, no one was hurt,” he said.
The group spent three days and two nights in open water before reaching an oil rig. From there they went to Thailand, where they lived for 14 months. “In the refugee camp my life changed. I took on the role of father to my brother,” he said.
During this time he also discovered his calling. “I looked at social workers and said I want to be like them. I thought about becoming a priest.”
A few years ago when his younger brother married, Pham finally felt he could do something for himself. “Being an SVD, I can go here and there to be with people, working with people, especially the poor,” he said. During his cultural training program, Pham helped disenfranchised people in the Caribbean island of Jamaica.
This fall, Dang, Mai, Nguyen and Pham enter their last year of studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. They are scheduled to complete their theological studies and be ordained in May and begin their first assignments in the summer of 2009.