I have thought about my vocation compared to how others came to be Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Many Handmaids and I have in common a stable Catholic family background, devout family-based religious practice, our elders active in the church community, and a beginning desire to see where God may want us in life.
This is where the comparisons end.
I was publicly educated enclosed in a totalitarian state; therefore, my Catholicism was muted. It was normal for us to go to daily Mass at 4:00 a.m. I grew up knowing the norm of restricted freedom. I was happy enough riding my moped daily through heavily trafficked streets to university. I was happy enough learning the information which was given to us. I was not unhappy taking the required course in Military Strategy for women and men in my university. The course required us to learn to handle an assault weapon, to march, to do a two week training camp, girls and guys together, in the countryside, and to chant slogans. It was the ordinary part of my 1990’s Catholic life after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam.
After I did a biology major in college, I began to go to some meetings that a Vietnamese Handmaid was holding for women in their late teens and early twenties. There I began to form bonds of enjoyment with the girls and to be interested in the Handmaid life I learned about from the sister who hosted us. With her we had social gathering, faith teaching, and in particular Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
God’s invitation drew me to look at the Handmaid vocation each time I went to a meeting and in my own prayer time. This contact-sister appeared to be happy, to be in love with God, and to be eager to adore Him in the Eucharist. She seemed genuinely to care for others and to serve us and others without counting the cost. In the Handmaids I could see that all was for the sake of God, of Jesus whom the sisters loved passionately.
As in all Vietnamese Catholic homes, Handmaids revere Mary. They want to learn from their model, the “first Handmaid of the Lord.” Like so many Vietnamese of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, in fact right up to today, my parents and adult brothers and sisters were on the years-long waiting list to leave for the United States. In my parents’ case the papers arrived after our family’s wait of more than ten years. We, their adult children, waited much longer.
By this time I was drawn by God to ask to become a member of the Handmaids. I wanted to remain in Vietnam, living the life of struggles, joys , and service to very needy families that was familiar to me. Nevertheless, I was advised by the sisters themselves to take advantage of emigration. “ Leave now to join your family,” was the advice. “You will have greater flexibility for many things later in life if you live in the United States.”
Don’t think that this was exciting good news for me….A significant sacrifice of some women and men entering Consecrated Life is to leave their family. In my case in order to follow my vocation, a very great and much different sacrifice was asked of me: I would be in the same country as my parents and some brothers and sisters. I would, on the other hand, lose in one shot and with no planning or eagerness, all that I held familiar: my language, my culture, some familiar Catholic practices, good friends, a climate and food I was used to, as well as the many friends at my stage of vocational discernment. So many things… really everything that I had known.
I would be like Sara and Abraham, going to a foreign country, on a flight not at all like a vacation! I now know by experience why the newcomer to the United States is called alien. I think I may know it better than any American-born who has studied Immigration Law. For me everything was alien to my identity, and I was alien to many new ways. Think what it might do to you when for the longest time due to language limits, you could not even laugh at some funny words said to relax and welcome you. The idea of alien expresses feelings and a state far deeper than any description that helps law function.
I am now an American citizen. In the eyes of the law, I have put behind me my “alien” status. Currently as a temporary professed Handmaid of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Pennsylvania, I am AT HOME. I belong in a community which welcomed me with the preparation with which I came and compassionately and wisely built on it.
My congregation in the United States serves many ethnicities because we are of many ethnicities and I appreciate that—especially at Vietnamese New Year! I belong in a community whose mission in the church is Reparation-Eucharist.
During my years of formation I have returned to my native country (a great gift in itself) and immersed myself in the Handmaids’ work there. I found myself more than ever drawn to compassion and ready to act on behalf of Christian education and justice for my people. Their economic situation has improved. But the people’s opportunities to know Jesus, to love and serve Him and to be free in the Catholic and world communities are more restricted than mine.
I have spent time in the Philippines, among Filipina,Vietnamese, and Spanish Handmaids, and East Timores formees. As a beginning Handmaid, I have traveled up and down the East Coast USA to get to know our sisters and their works. I see that I belong where women are advocating for the poor, defending them in court, educating them with excellence, providing opportunities to encounter God. In order to make those with whom we minister feel at ease, we speak in Chinese languages, Kmer, Spanish, English, Vietnamese.
God’s Spirit keeps affirming my place here; my congregation has given me opportunities to open my eyes and mind and heart in ways that I never dreamed. I am just beginning a journey of loving Reparation, repairing myself and being offered surprising opportunities to help God repair others. I hope and expect to continue my vowed commitment in a reconciling world in which Jesus in Eucharist may be accepted with love and gratitude as the Great Repairer who has given all for us.