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A visit to people who will be first in God’s Kingdom


In my work I travel to Vietnam a few times a year to meet with the rectors, deans and faculty of four large Vietnamese universities. During a recent visit one rector invited me to join him and his staff for lunch on the roof garden of the Saigon Trade Center.

The view from the Trade Center, Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest building, is stunning. Day or night, the hustle and bustle on the Saigon River below looks like a bee hive in spring.

After taking in the vista, my eyes caught sight of a group of about 30 hut-like structures surrounded by jungle a few miles across the Saigon River. I inquired what these might be, but none of my hosts knew for sure. One ventured a guess that they are collapsing warehouses abandoned by the American military before the fall of Saigon in 1975.

A few days later, sharing my excitement over the view from the tall building with a Jesuit friend, Fr. Dat, I inquired again about these huts. Dat’s look of surprise gave way to a gentle smile. “If you are free on Sunday, I will show you,” he said.


Two brothers, children of lepers, in the village of Tan Binh outside Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam

Dat, I learned, is the chaplain to the Tan Binh leper village, housed in the huts I had noticed.

On that Sunday, after turning off the congested National Highway 1 and crossing three rickety bridges, we arrived at Tan Binh, the Village of Peace. Over 400 adults and children, three generations, and more than half of them lepers, live at Tan Binh. They come from all over Vietnam to live here because the village is a safe haven and because it’s located near a city that provides work for those lepers who can disguise their wounds and land jobs as street cleaners or cycle drivers.

The village appears to be cut out of the jungle with bamboo buildings clustered around a large rectangular field, now teeming with children playing tag-like games. Over 75 percent of Tan Binh’s residents are Buddhist, but all recognize Dat as a friend of the community.

Dat managed to persuade the Ho Chi Minh City government to set up a primary school in the village. When the city education authority complained that there were no teachers willing to go to Tan Binh, he helped the people locate teachers in other parts of Vietnam who were children of lepers and willing to come to Tan Binh.

Dat introduced me to the village leader, Mr. Phuc, who was anticipating our arrival. A group of six village youth who are studying English were my guides. Their teacher, Miss Lei, a thin, gentle woman with a face as radiant as a sunflower, led the visiting committee. (I heard later that Lei is the daughter of lepers but not a leper herself. Many Vietnamese fear that merely looking at the child of a leper can cause the disease. Because of the social stigma Vietnamese society attaches to leprosy, Lei must live with her parents in the village. If she marries, it will be to the son of lepers.)

The welcoming committee escorted me around to meet parents, brothers and sisters. I had not been among lepers before. Each family welcomed me with openness and hospitality. Going from hut to hut, we sipped many cups of tea and met many families. A few parents of my tour guides wore bandages on stubs where hands and feet once were. A mother was missing a nose. I was struck by the joy of these people to have an American visitor, a friend of Dat, and their pride that their children were speaking English.

Around dusk I was escorted back to the home of the village leader. He inquired of Dat if I would concelebrate Mass with him that evening in the community center. I happily agreed and proceeded to the community center-turned-chapel. Almost 300 people had gathered, 200 more than the number of Catholics in the village. Dat remarked that many non-Catholic villagers like to attend Mass because it is an opportunity to sing and be together with their neighbors in a reflective way. I wondered if it were not also because of the love the people have for Dat.

Although I did not know it, this Sunday was the International Day of the Leper. The music during the liturgy was lovely. A mixed choir of high school youth blended harmoniously with five older men tapping drums and playing string instruments. The men were clearly lepers.

Dat had invited me to say a few words after the gospel. In the moments between the gospel reading and my words to the people, it struck me that I was standing before the very people Jesus was referring to as he proclaimed his good news from that hillside. These people of Tan Binh, Catholics and Buddhist alike, are surely among the lowly, humble and suffering.

I spoke to the people about how Jesus welcomed lepers into his presence. And how when God looks at us, God sees not only our faces, hands and feet but also our hearts. It is not what we look like that attracts God to us but what is in our hearts. How we want to love and to be loved; to be valued and esteemed for who we are; and to do something for others, God’s people. Dat translated into Vietnamese as I went along.

Next a group of mothers wearing white ao dai, the tunic and trousers traditionally worn by Vietnamese women, led the prayers of the faithful. Prayers were offered for people and events near and far; for lepers all over the world on this the International Day of the Leper; and especially for those lepers who had no one to love them and would die alone.

After Mass, Dat and I met the people. Everyone seemed to want to greet us. The hands of many bore the scars of their disease and felt leathery. I noticed a young man of about 25, visibly a leper, standing off to the side. No one had seen him before. He smiled at me. I went over to him. He took my hands into his and started kissing them.

Lei spoke with him. It turns out that he had just arrived at Tan Binh from Hai Phong, over 1,000 miles to the north. He was no longer welcome in his neighborhood because his wounds were now visible. He had heard of Tan Binh and hitchhiked to the village. He told Miss Lei that he was moved by the Mass and wanted to express his gratitude to me for speaking about how God looks at him.

Later Phuc escorted the newcomer to a temporary shelter until arrangements could be made for more permanent lodging in the single men’s shelter in the village.

A village family sent supper over to the community center for Dat, Phuc and me. Over the meal of shrimp soup, rice and pickled vegetables, Dat said he has been coming to Tan Binh on weekends for 11 years. He has a little room in the back of the center. Given all the things he does over the length and breadth of Vietnam, this is what gives him the most satisfaction: to be with the lepers of Tan Binh who have taught him how to be hospitable and grateful for small things.

Of all the people we Jesuits touch in our programs of education and justice, it is people like those who live at Tan Binh, it seems to me, who will be first in the Kingdom of God.

Jesuit Fr. Julio Giulietti is the director of the Georgetown University Center For Intercultural Education and Development. The center designs and administers education, technical and leadership training programs in 17 nations around the world.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999