by Fr. Stan Uroda, SVD
Teaching in Vietnam was not part of my life plan, but the Spirit clearly had other ideas.
The beginning of this story is really the arrival in the USA of the Vietnamese refugees in 1975 and the rapid growth of their presence and importance in the SVD. Since I was a formator at the Chicago Theologate in the late ‘80s, I got to know all of the early Vietnamese to come through their formation in the USA. So when I was Vice-Provincial in the 90s they pushed me to request action on the part of the Superior General and his council to rekindle the connections made earlier with the Brothers of St. Joseph in Vietnam. Instead of sending a member of the general council, our superiors encouraged us to make a visit, consult with the Brothers, and see how things looked for the SVD to possibly engage some mission in the country.
It was that visit, made in 1993 with Frs. Joseph Tri and Joseph Vu that led to me becoming an advisor to the Vietnam province in 2014. Some of the former members of the Brothers of St. Joseph remembered my earlier visit and suggested I might be helpful with some policy development in line with their ongoing transition to the SVD. By this time of course, all the former members of the Brothers’ congregation had become SVDs and were working hard to adopt practices fully consonant with the rest of the Society.
After making a series of short visits to Vietnam, and as I was approaching the end of my service at Divine Word Theologate, it was a natural next step to spend longer periods of time in Vietnam. The great need that stood out to me as something I might be able to assist with was a lack of strong English skills as candidates went for their Overseas Training or their first assignments as SVDs. The newly elected Superiors in Vietnam agreed with this assessment and my request to teach here. They had observed that arriving in a foreign country with only Vietnamese language and very limited English made the orientation and entry processes extremely difficult for our young Vietnamese candidates and members.
The inevitable cross-cultural challenges were compounded by the scarcity of contact with other cultures while in Vietnam. It was all very new and strange, so not having better skills for communication intensified the isolation that all missionaries experience in the early stages of entering a new culture.
I arrived in the Vietnam province for a kind of six month trial period in January 2015. Next came six grueling months of trying to get the Vietnamese to stick in my brain and come out in intelligible words (I confess with very limited success!). After an evaluation of the trial period, we agreed to continue with the plan for teaching.
So, I travelled to Nha Trang where fifty-one postulants welcomed their new English teacher. Now I teach eight periods of English language each week. The periods last for 45 minutes, so the two halves of the postulants’ group, Year I and Year II, each get four class periods a week from me and additional English classes from local teachers. I enjoy this ministry and hope my students are gaining something that will serve them well for the future.
In the meantime, I am happy in this lovely coastal town with an SVD community that has welcomed and supported me these last few months. Much remains uncertain about how long I will be able to continue this mission, but for now I am confident I am in the right place and doing something of value for our future Vietnamese missionaries.
It still amazes me that I am even here and I thank God for the mysterious and wonderful ways of the Spirit at work in our lives.