It is always a humbling experience to visit the parish of Father Cong on the outskirts of Can Tho, Vietnam. The people who live in this area have very little possessions besides their sweat-drenched cotton shirts, tattered sandals (sometimes no shoes at all!), and rickety-roofed cots to call home. Families cannot afford to send their children to school. They cannot afford medical care. Older adults receive little social assistance and cannot afford medicine for very common chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes. Middle aged men and women work long hours to make the bare minimum to feed their dog, their chickens, their ducks, their children, their parents, themselves, and maybe two or three more family members who have shacked up under the same roof.
The socialist ideologies of Vietnam where the working class is supposed to benefit, have not fully been executed with the introduction of a mixed economy and market mechanisms in the 1980s. The liberation of the productive forces created a better life for most Vietnamese people; however, it created relations of exploitation in the developing sector. It also created an elite group of rich people whose interests are separate and apart from the masses of workers and peasants. The most obvious problem is the corruption amongst government and public officials. They have an overwhelming interest in big houses and luxury cars instead of in the suffering of millions of workers in industrial zones and peasants working umpteen hours in rice fields. The gap between the rich and the poor is astounding. For example, I have family members in Vietnam who share a small 400 square foot apartment between 10 people, while others share a seven floor mansion that cost 2 million USD between 3 people. Given the corruption in Vietnam, I can see why health care, education, and social services remain at the bottom of the priority list and why the people of rural Can Tho continue to live in destitute conditions.
What the parishioners of Can Tho lack in worldly possessions, they boast in love of family and community, kindness, hospitality, servitude, and faith. I have never met people so humble, so honest, and so generous. They welcomed us into their next-to-empty homes with open arms and offered us all the food and drink that they saved for themselves. A "meal" to one local family was a bowl of rice, soy sauce, and a plate of boiled cabbage. They have no cell phones, no televisions, no cars, no tablets nor iPads. "Luxury" is the opportunity to take the bus home from Church after saving $20,000 VND ($1 USD) to do so. I spoke with a decrepit and sunburnt 80 year-old woman who chose to walk an hour to church every Sunday in order to save the $40,000 VND to buy fish instead!
This old lady is too weak to get out of bed. She mostly lays on her side day after day, night after night, year after year. She has not left her home in the last 5 years. I noticed a large infected sore on her left buttock.
At times I cannot help but feel guilty. These people share my language, my roots, and my culture. They look like me, talk like me, hope like me, and dream like me. But unlike me, they have obstructed access to the very basics of needs, including food, clean water, shelter, and clothing. Don't even talk about sanitation, education, and health care! I am free, while they are held captive in impoverished limbo.
Together with all the children of OBV, we made "Banh Chung", a traditional Vietnamese sticky rice cake to give to the poor villagers of Can Tho. We coupled it with a "red envelope" containing $100,000 VND as a nice gesture for Vietnamese New Years. Even though the girls have been through hell and back, they acknowledged that they are lucky to now be respected and cherished in the presence of a warm and loving family. They were glad to give back to people in need and were also so eager to outdo me! They won of course, because my cakes turned out terribly!
Our modest gesture was well received and appreciated by all the locals. Their toothless smiles confirms it! I would do it over and over again.