I recently had the delightful experience of participating once again at the national conference for Vietnamese catechists. Held every other year, Vietnamese catechists—many of them of high school or college age—gather in a parish hall in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to celebrate their Vietnamese culture, pray, sing, eat great food, and –oh yeah—learn how to be better catechists.
I have spoken at this event once every other year for the last fourteen years. I have watched young boys and girls who attended the first conference now grown to be men and women with children now of their own, along with many who are now women religious.
Attending this conference is always a highlight of my year. While I must admit how much I love Vietnamese food, that’s actually not why I relish the time I spend with this group. What really appeals to me is the sense of community, the sense of faith that one experiences at this event. The music is an invitation to deep meditative prayer because of its beauty. The catechesis is as solid as one might experience at a diocesan or national event—the keynote speaker this time was a Vietnamese priest who is the former rector of the Pontifical Biblical school in Jerusalem. The community spirit that is shown is a delight to behold, with singing, clapping, and encouragement.
Up to now this has been simply a positive report of a catechetical conference sponsored by a specific culture group. For the rest of the article I’d like to use this experience to offer a few thoughts about what I’ve learned about culture from my years working with the Vietnamese.
First, I’ve learned that language is not an overwhelming barrier. What I haven’t mentioned so far is that the conference is held almost totally in Vietnamese. I am the only non-Vietnamese person at the conference. While most of the people present speak English fluently, my presentation is the only one presented in English. A summary of my talk was translated into Vietnamese for those for whom it was the native language. For many of the younger Vietnamese who do not speak Vietnamese fluently, a summary of the Vietnamese talks are show on a screen. When I first attended the conference, I had someone assigned to me to translate. Since then, I’ve been pretty much on my own, and it doesn’t matter that I don’t speak a word of Vietnamese. I know that I’m in a safe place, that they won’t make fun of me, and that if I need to know something, I’ll be told. The reason that the music is such a meditative experience for me is that the music is in Vietnamese. I can’t understand the words, so I have to let the beautiful harmony carry me into conversation with the divine.
Second, it’s all about feeling welcomed. What is most amazing to me is that the conference invites me back each year. I guess they have grown comfortable with me. I know I feel comfortable with them. I showed up at this year’s conference without even knowing the schedule or when I was to speak. That was okay. I am much taller than most Vietnamese, so I stand out in the crowd, and yet in this group I fit in because I am made to feel so welcome.
Third, cross cultural experiences are amazing if both parties are willing to accept the other, to learn from the other, and to appreciate the other. I have to be willing to allow the Vietnamese to be themselves, and accept the gift that they are to me and to the entire church. If I ask them to change for my account, it just won’t work.
What more could you ask.