The Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul work closely with the numerous ethnic groups in the Dak Lak province of central Vietnam. To do this, they walk a tightrope of diplomacy with the government, which exercises strict control over the province for fear that “reactionary forces abroad incite ethnic groups to fight against the government.”
The community of eight nuns in their 30s and 40s carry on the work with ethnic groups, which their order has done since the 1950s.
I accompanied the nuns to two hamlets that are 43 miles (70 km) away from their convent. We stopped on the way and sought advice from a priest who works with people from the hamlets, and he asked a seminarian to lead us.
When we arrived, in the baking sun, at a hamlet whose members are Raglay, M’nong and K’hor ethnic minority people, its lay leader warmly received us at his home and told us that he had secured a government permit for the nuns’ visit and a local security official would join our visit to the local people. Local authorities do not allow people to gather to pray at their houses or for clergy to visit and give them pastoral support.
After waiting about a half hour, the official came and demanded to list our names. He also asked about the aim of the visit and other matters. His face was set and hard.
The nuns eased his mind by asking about his job, health and family and the lives of the local people. They told him that they had just dropped in on some people on the way and so declined politely to provide their names. They got on friendly terms with him and invited him to join their trip. Finally he accepted.
The sisters walked around the hamlet visiting the people. They gave about a dozen elderly and sick people some milk, sugar, meat and cake at their small ramshackle houses. They also offered sweets to children whose faces lit up as they received such treats from unexpected visitors. The children were barefoot, in dirty clothes and going hungry.
“You have seen what we did. We only comfort the poor and patients. We never do anything against the government,” one of the nuns told the official and then offered his grandchildren gifts.
“It was really kind of you to visit us,” the official said with a smile of approval. “I am asked to follow what outsiders do here. I only do my duty.”
We felt relieved to finish the visit, although we were soaked in sweat. We left the hamlet and shared a light lunch we had packed with four local children on the banks of a stream.
Mercy on a motorbike
Many of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul facilities were confiscated by the government after 1975, when the communists reunified the country. Now the community lives in a shabby convent. They run a day care center for 300 children based in the compound of the convent. The center is one of two facilities run by women religious that are famous for their educational quality in the city.
A local senior priest told me that government officials and well-off people strive to send their children to the two centers rather than to public schools. “Some officials even beg me to work with the nuns to admit their children to the centers,” he said.
Religious groups are still banned from taking part in health care and education except for nursery services.
To provide education for children from poor families, especially ethnic minority groups, the nuns use an old building as an elementary school to teach illiterate children for free. They collect children from big families and domestic migrant workers and give them food, clothes, books and pens. Hundreds of children in the first through fifth grades have finished courses from the school, and many of them continue their study at public schools.
The nuns travel by motorbike, visiting and giving material support to widows, people with physical disabilities, and abandoned and homeless people around the city. They offer daily meals to patients at public hospitals. Benefactors make donations to their work.
“We exist here to support people in need emotionally and materially so that they can live a proper life. We try to provide the best services we can for all people,” a nun told me while I carried her on a motorbike. We stopped many times to say hello or give food to trash scavengers on the streets and to ill people confined to their houses.
She said they have a little freedom to do their ministries in the city, where some officials accept their activities, but “we should have the wisdom to work in rural areas where priests and women religious have limited access to.”
Grace under fire
As I found in the visit to rural hamlets and the way the sisters dealt with the official there, the nuns never complained about difficulties caused by the government. They have been restricted from working with people in some hamlets, so they are used to such challenges from the government.
They try to bear witness to God’s love by determined efforts to serve people in need, respect all people, avoid argument and live in harmony with other people.
They really seek to spur mutual trust between the church and the government through their work. They want to provide church ministry and social services for people in need as much as possible while they try to look for acceptable ways to deal with government restrictions.
Their efforts keep their consecrated life very vibrant.