We are creatures of habit and we dislike when things go out of order or do not go our way. We are creatures of comfort and we get irritated when we are being challenged and removed from our securities and comfort zones. Nonetheless, each and every day, living beings and matters have to adapt to the changing of times. Adaptation and renewal might seem small and insignificant, and we oftentimes forget about them to focus on big or personal matters, but they are integral parts of life. It is easy to resent major changes or challenges and react to what we do not like, but we have to remember that we are already doing it daily and have the capacity to be both firm and flexible — creative and founded — in our way of life and faith journey.
After my priestly ordination in 2013, I went on a medical/dental mission trip back to my own motherland, Viet Nam, with a permanent deacon who is a practicing dentist. We both raised a substantial amount of money to be used for the poor, especially to build several houses for the indigenous people. Out of prudence and knowledge of how the corrupt communist country operates, we decided to split it in half just in case something bad would happen (so we would not lose everything). When we arrived in Viet Nam at the customs post, I was greeted by an officer who was not friendly or impressed that I am an American citizen of Vietnamese origin. He saw from my passport information that I was born in Viet Nam, so we held our conversation in the native language.
He went on asking me the different questions regarding my purpose of visit, especially since he saw my occupation listed on the declaration form as a clergy member. I told him that it was for a mission trip. He then asked me how much money I was bringing in because I would have to pay customs fees and taxes for it. (He basically wanted a cut or to be bribed, but I refused to comply with the scheme.) It was scary at first, because as a person who grew up in the communist country back in the 80s, we did not talk back to government officials since we knew what they did to those who disobeyed their orders. Nevertheless, I mustered all my courage to respond, “No, that money is not for you. It is for the poor.”
The officer did not like my answer. He got angry and told me that I was in big trouble. He told me to stand aside and wait as he “consult” with his superiors. I waited for a good while. I finally had enough so I came back to the post and told him, “If you deny me entry, then do it. If you’re just holding me here for no reason, I’m going to call the U.S. Consulate and you’d have to explain to them the real reason why.” He knew that he did not have a valid reason since I filled out all the necessary paperwork.
Nevertheless, I also knew that I was being watched.
After arriving at the convent of the Missionaries of Christ’s Charity sisters, several people immediately asked the sisters why they saw men entering the compound even though it is supposed to be a religious community for women. Mother Superior knew their petty intentions so she held them back and closed the gates since they did not have sufficient evidence to search. We were told to lay low. She finally rented a minivan with curtained blinds to get us to where we needed to go.
When we arrived at our location, we had to report to the local People’s Committee officials. They made life hard again, but we played along with their game. They required us to check-in and sleep at a local hotel (that they built so they can make some money off of tourists and foreigners) which was expensive according to Vietnamese standards. The price was ridiculous if one took into consideration the location, too! However, we had to comply. They required us to turn in our passports in the evening as a way to control and keep an eye on us.
Each day of the mission, we knew that they had scouts reporting our actions. Nevertheless, we kept on doing what is right for the poor. However, at the end of our time there, the local officials magically showed up to take pictures with us. These hypocritical people who were treating us harshly now turned around taking pictures to claim that they coordinated, worked hard, and wonderfully brought foreign medical care for the poor people. We knew their intentions but ignored it because our goal and focus were always on the people.
I share with you that one particular instance to let you see that what happened to us was not something special. It is simply the reality of the many challenges and obstacles that many missionaries and parts of the Church around the world have to deal with each and every day! Not every part of the Church is stabled, rich, and established like what we see around us. Many are being challenged, intimidated, pressured, and bullied by the government, and these shepherds and stewards of God‘s grace have to find creative ways to adapt as well as to stand firm with their essential mission to evangelize and care for the poor.
When we are being challenged out of our comfort zone here in America, let us remember that is not always a bad thing! In the midst of many changing challenges and trials, we must remember that the Church has always learned to adapt in order to survive, grow, and flourish, even under many of the harshest regimes and persecutions. When one part of the Church gets comfortable and becomes less flexible in seeing potential growths and opportunities outside of its set, bureaucratic, and institutionalized model, it begins to decay and slowly rot from within. If we are so fixated on one particular model, system, or idea of what the Church should be, we will end up with a dead carcass with many vultures trying to feed off of it but has no life-giving, substantial, and hope-filled gifts.
The parts of the Church that grow and truly evangelize are places where the faithful are joyful and committed to their faith. They know the value of what it takes to believe and joyfully become stewards of their local parishes, deaneries, and dioceses. When Christians see their dignity, value, and integral roles in being the active part of the Church, those parts flourish and get strengthened with the joy of the Gospel and believers.
Of course, there are challenges at each and every part of the Church. It is important that we persevere, stand courageous, and become creative on how to respond and answer our obstacles with a personal, life-giving, and genuine gift of joy that is found in the Gospel. We should never allow our successes or challenges to define us, but to find our personal commitment, perseverance, and strength that is found in the Lord. True hope helps us stand strong and firm against injustices, manipulations, intimidations, and fear tactics, but flexible and creative with new ways to live the Gospel in how we care for our neighbors, especially the poorest of the poor and the least of our brethren. Without a doubt, it has to be love that motivates and nourishes us in our trials and challenges. Therefore, let us not be stuck in our own ways but find new ways to preach the Gospel at all times, and use words when necessary. (cf. St. Francis of Assisi)