Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Vietnamese Marian Days in Carthage, Missouri (August 2-5, 2007)

“Mot, hai, ba”—“One, two, three”! “Cheeezzz”! As the shutter snaps, the row of rumpled Franciscans begins to stand at ease and breathe again. It’s been a hot and humid day in Carthage, Missouri at the 30th Annual Marian Day celebrations / Ngay Thành Mau XXX (August 2-5). Ninety-five in the shade and 90% humidity. Sweating and sweltering in our habits, we friars are trying to put a happy face on things. Liters of bottled water splashing down parched throats; hand fans waving furiously in the still heat. Here in the Ozarks we’re far from the California shore, but trying not to think of it. Besides, it’s worth it.

Since 1978, the Vietnamese Congregation of the Mother Coredemptrix (CMC) has sponsored this annual event which now draws upwards of 75,000 Vietnamese American Catholics from the South and Southeast for a four-day festival of faith and culture. The town of Carthage (population 12,000) swells with tents pitched throughout the congregation’s 28-acre campus and spilling over to the front and backyards of accommodating neighbors. This is the event of the year, a real Catholic Woodstock.

When the Marian Days first started in 1978, just three years after the fall of Saigon, fewer than 2,000 people attended. Townspeople in this Bible Belt region were initially hesitant to permit the event, not knowing quite what to expect. But after the organizers proved that they would be no trouble or nuisance, but on the contrary, a real boon to the area and it’s summer tourist economy, minds and hearts began to change. These days, everyone in southwest Missouri knows about Marian Days; visitors are universally accorded a gracious welcome. Local families and churches have joined forces to assist in accommodations and services in a truly ecumenical spirit.

We Franciscans came in full force this year—two of us (Brother Nghia Phan and myself) from California—and a half-dozen friars from our Midwestern province of the Sacred Heart, including friars Mike Fowler and Duc Phan. Father Hung Nguyen, the Capuchin Franciscan vocations director from Berkeley, made our entourage complete. We set up tables and manned tent booths offering vocations literature, holy cards, badges and smiles to everyone who passed by. The place was jammed with thousands of Vietnamese-American youth, to be sure. But most folks were more interested in checking out the food and music (and each other, of course!) than in asking about religious life.

No matter. We knew the score from past experience. This time we came, along with representatives of more than a dozen men and women’s religious congregations, to offer a ministry of presence and support. Many young people had never seen a sister or male religious before and were curious. Others just wanted someone to chat with about what was going on in their lives: (“How do I tell my mom I’m dating someone who’s not Vietnamese?” ….“I work in a nail salon in Flint, Michigan, and send all my money to my family in Vietnam. I feel so lost and depressed here sometimes What can I do?.”…. “At first I came here because my parents insisted. Now that I have a family of my own, I want my kids to know about their Vietnamese culture and be proud of their faith.”)

All of it—the food, the music, presentations, the liturgies, the splendid procession of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima through the neighborhood streets—was more than worth it. Marian Days was and is living proof of the vitality and durability of the Catholic faith among the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans. (Vietnamese now number about 1.5 million in the US. About one-third of them are Catholics).

When we weren’t talking with folks who strolled by in a steady stream, we took some time for fraternal check-in and fun among ourselves, catching up on each other’s lives and asking about the different brothers we knew from each other’s provinces. During meal breaks, we headed off to the cafeteria where the CMC (Chi Dong Dong Cong) brothers and an army of volunteers provided complimentary food (pho!) and beverages in air-conditioned comfort!

The culminating event of the four-day celebration of faith was the Saturday evening procession followed by fireworks and balloons and an outdoor Mass with an ocean of attentive and devout faces of all generations. Here one felt: yes, the Church is vibrant and strong. And the faith these people have brought with them, following decades of struggle, social displacement, and personal suffering is a true gift to the Catholic community in the United States and the world. //

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm going for the first time this year. I committed to the trip mostly because I feel obligated to my parents, who really want me to go with them for their second visit. I'm glad I found your blog post about Marian Days, because it makes it sound a bit more interesting. Thanks!