Friday night we had the opportunity to meet the new priest for our parish. He's actually been around a bit before as chaplain to the Vietnamese community - but now he is officially assigned to our parish as the Parochial Vicar.
He is young and friendly and charming. The hosts for the evening asked him about his past - as in how he left Vietnam. We had another Vietnamese priest a number of years ago who had left Vietnam as a child - on a small boat: he'd been one of the "Vietnamese boat people."
Father Peter told us that unlike Father Joe he did not escape Vietnam by boat. In fact he was helped out by the US government twenty years ago. "We went on a plane," he said, "much better than a boat."
Leaving Vietnam may have been simple for him - but the rest of his life was not. He was five years old when the war ended. His father had worked with the US army - in a high level position. So when the war ended his father went to jail - for thirteen years. His mother lost her house due to this. She was 28 and had five children. "Times were hard" Father Peter told us. Honestly I can't even imagine how hard!
With his father a war criminal he and his siblings could not go to college or get jobs. But when his father's prison term was up - the US government stepped in and brought the family to the US. They got them an apartment in the Bronx (about as far as you can imagine from rural Vietnam) and gave them some money to get started. Father Peter knew no English. It was against the law to listen to an English radio station in Vietnam (automatic jail). You couldn't have an American Flag (10 years jail) or American money (jail again). He spent a year studying English and then attended college and seminary. I believe our parish is lucky to have him minister to us now.
But listening to the stories he told (and he told everything in such a matter of fact way - really downplaying the horror or it all) makes one realize just how lucky and blessed we are in this country. There may be things we don't like - there may be politicians we wish would fade into the woodwork. But if we have a flag from a different country in our home, we don't go to jail.
We talk a lot about being a free country - but until you hear stories like this it's hard to realize quite what that means. But once you do realize it it's impossible not to thank God for the life we have in this country.