A turning point:

“I never doubted that I would live,” Fr. Toan said. “Even in the most difficult times when we were hungry, we prayed more. It just appeared in that situation that we had to cling onto something. And the only thing we had was our faith.”

Fr. Toan Vu, SVD
Vocation Director

Fr. Toan Vu, SVD, made a promise to God, and to himself, in 1985 when he was just 17 years old. He was bobbing along at high sea in a small fishing boat with 48 other people heading to Thailand from Vietnam in hopes of finding safety from religious persecution and he prayed. “I made a promise to do something with my life,” he said. The group of neighbors and strangers were on the vessel without an engine for 32 days before they reached the shores of Thailand. By then, only 25 people were left. The others died of starvation or were killed at sea by pirates.

After just a few days, they were tricked into getting back on their boat under the guise that they would be taken to a refugee camp. The Thai officials led them deep into the ocean in the middle of the night and rammed their small boat before leaving them for dead in open waters. That night, Fr. Toan and the others aboard the boat prayed together. In fact, they united in prayer regularly, despite the differences in their religions.

“I never doubted that I would live,” Fr. Toan said. “Even in the most difficult times when we were hungry, we prayed more. It just appeared in that situation that we had to cling onto something. And the only thing we had was our faith.”

In the morning, they saw that there was water in the boat, but it was still afloat. After another agonizing five days at sea, they arrived at a small desert island. While it was visually beautiful, Fr. Toan says it was desolate. There was no lush vegetation to eat or ponds to drink from. Instead, they waited for animals to die at sea and wash ashore so they could consume them. They survived for five days on clams and any dew they could find. That’s when they noticed a couple walking along the beach in the distance. Later, they learned that the couple were Americans who worked for the United Nations in Thailand. The couple didn’t approach them, but they did report their finding to the Thai government. Soon, a boat was sent after the group of mystery island dwellers, but even then, their hardships were not over. The Thai government was worried that this group could be a threat or planning an attack. So, the people aboard the Thai boat shot at them, trying to kill Fr. Toan and his companions. For three days, they hid behind rocks to protect themselves from the gunfire. Eventually, the Thai officials realized that the group was not retaliating and did not pose a threat. So, they finally picked them up and took them to a refugee camp in Thailand.

Still just a teenager, Fr. Toan lived in the camp without any family connections for two years. Then he moved to a refugee processing camp in the Philippines so he could learn about American culture. After a few months, he was accepted into the United States as a refugee and moved briefly to Los Angeles before relocating again to Oregon.

Fr. Toan got a job in a Nike Factory to help pay his tuition at a local community college. He was interested in mechanical engineering and social work. He had connections at Boeing, so he knew that he could make a comfortable living as an engineer. Or if he became a social worker, he figured he could set his sights on a job with the United Nations and help refugees like himself.

After some time, Fr. Toan adjusted to the American lifestyle and considered his career options more seriously. “I thought, I don't want to live my life just every day going to work or studying and then going home. And then on the weekends go with my friends and drink beer. So, I said I have to do something because I thought back to when I was on my journey, and I knew I survived for a reason,” he said.

On the weekends, Fr. Toan visited different Vietnamese churches and taught Catechism to the children. After briefly exploring a vocation with another congregation, Fr. Toan learned about Divine Word Missionaries. The global reach of the Society of the Divine Word felt like just the right fit.

Fr. Toan started his formation in 1995 when he enrolled in classes at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa. In 2006, he was ordained a Divine Word Missionary Priest.

During his formation, Fr. Toan spent 2 years in Chile for his Cross-Cultural Training Program. After his ordination, he moved to Ecuador, where he served for 17 years. In 2023, Fr. Toan returned to the United States to take on a new role as a Vocation Director. 

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