Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Final Installment

Dear friends of Bridging Hope

It’s now Tuesday, Oct 26, back in Saigon.  This will be a quick report and brief reflection as we wrap up our trip here.

At Con En we were satisfied that the work we’re helping with is needed and well managed.  In virtually all families, especially among the poor, both parents have to work for salaries, often one suspects at more than one job.  So the day care shelter provides safety and food and some very preliminary education – safety especially during the long flooding season that inundates the delta, and food that helps the parents.  The staff of women (one trained a bit in early childhood education, the others simply women with energy for child care) seemed very diligent.  We were happy to find that the facility is undergoing good improvement – a thatched roof has been replaced with corrugated sheet-metal and they were in the process of putting an insulating layer about 6-inches under the metal for cooling purposes. 

We were even happier to learn that the funding for the facility comes from Vietnamese sources – both local folks and benefactors in cities like Saigon.  Thus, as in virtually everything Bridging Hope does here in Viet Nam, we are working in partnership with generous Vietnamese benefactors and workers.

As to the role of the Catholic Church – it provides management and networking and fund-raising, but the services are for everyone who need them.

All of this was again evident this morning in our meeting with the “management team” for Mai Tam – the network of shelters and facilities for women and children with HIV/Aids.  The program was started by a local priest who bought a house for some women with Aids and their children – and in 2006 was brought under the umbrella of Aids work by Catholic Social Services here in Saigon.  But while the “management team” is headed by a Catholic sister (Sr. Anna) on the staff of Catholic Social Services (which pays her salary), the on-sight managers and workers are a mix of Catholic sisters and priests (all paid by their congregations for this work) and lay  helpers.  Much of the work is also done through their foster-care program where the vast majority of the kids are living – and the foster parents (sometimes actual family of the child) are not paid for this work.  Rather they pay a good part of the school fees for the school age children, even though they receive the needed medicine from Caritas International and help with food from Bridging Hope. 

There are also significant Vietnamese benefactors.  Thus, a Vietnamese doctor gave the land where the new orphanage and shelter for the babies and little kids (which we had visited earlier) was constructed, and the family that owns one of Saigon’s best restaurants gives a very significant monthly donation.  Just a few examples.  So Bridging Hope is partnering with both with international charities and with many Vietnamese benefactors.

The meeting this morning with Sr. Anna, Sr. Agnes, and Fr. Joseph – the latter two the key managers at the baby/toddler shelter – was typical of many we’ve had here, but for me perhaps the most impressive.  They are such unbelievably generous people, each with a personal story that has led them to this difficult and often painful work.  (Fr. Joeseph Phu, probably a guy about 30 or 35, told me that it was a serious accident in the streets here on his motor-scooter that led him to become a priest with a group of priests dedicated to helping the seriously ill and dying!)  And they carry on with great joy, though I’m sure they have their down times.

I told them as we left that “bridging hope” really is a two way street.  I often get pretty depressed when I think about all the problems of poverty, disease, and war in our world.  But meeting them (and others here) gave me a renewed sense of hope.  We are not doing “world changing” work, but we’re doing what we can – and real hope is build not of great dreams and visions, but of the little steps of people helping each other, whether across rooms or streets, or across oceans.  

Hope to see you all at some Bridging Hope event in the coming months. 


(PS, I did the writing, which is why this is so long-winded!  Sen edited, and added the photos which tell the story better than I ever could

3rd Installment - Viet Nam

Dear friends of Bridging Hope:

One night last week we got a surprise invitation to have dinner with two Catholic Bishops from the North, each in charge of his own diocese near Ha Noi.  They had come to Saigon for the funeral of an elderly bishop from someplace in the South (an honorary gathering of all the Catholic Bishops in Viet Nam who could make it), but we were invited to have dinner with these two because one of them grew up in Sen’s village.  Sen was a good friend of his sister and had visited with him in the North during one of her previous trips here.  Initially we thought we’d have some good conversation about Bridging Hope and the needs of women and children in his area.  It turned out, however, that it was more a social dinner – keeping connections all around, something that increasingly strikes me as typically Vietnamese in the best sense.  Not clear what it will mean for BH in the future, but I was able to have a good conversation with him in French.  We both had learned French way back during our respective graduate days and were equally rusty, but it worked.  With the other bishop, whom Sen also was meeting for the first time, we got along with a mix of French, English, and of course, for Sen and both of them, Vietnamese.

The next day, if I’m remembering correctly, we visited one of “the polio women” who do sewing for a living (many of their items sold by Provide-N-Ce in the past and now by BH).  This woman is married with two children, but both very crippled in the legs and something of a dwarf.  She and two siblings were found abandoned at a rubber plantation some 40 years ago and taken by some nuns to an orphanage.  All afflicted in the same way.  One theory is that it was agent orange rather than polio.  One has since died and the second lives with the family in a very nice, but small “back alley” apartment.  One of her kids is 11 and perfectly normal, the other is 5 and has some disease of the bones (very fragile and brittle, break very easily).  Still they have amazing spirit and are part of the network of Agape Houses for polio women that is paid for by some nuns and to some extend by their embroidery and other sewing products.  

The next day. It’s typical of Sen that we were walking down a posh street in Saigon (yes, there are some in the tourist and business center – even Gucci and the rest), and something about one shop caught her eye.  So we went in, and I eventually bought some items for my wife and daughter (it wasn’t that posh!).  On the way out the manager asked Sen to ask me if I could help her with some English.  She’s taking a class and they were preparing for a test.  In the process Sen told her about the women with polio and their sewing.  She was interested, to the point that she’d be happy to buy their stuff to sell in her shop if it was good quality.  So another lead…all via the informal Vietnamese “network system.”

We spent the next two days in the Me Kong delta.  The first at a parish Sen had never visited before that was starting a day care facility for children similar to the one we are presently supporting.  The priest in the first parish is young and energetic and had managed to raise money in Saigon for a well which now provides the only potable water to the village, and is available to everyone at a modest price.  The water in all the streams and rivers in the delta is polluted so they had to drill below 1000 feet for this well.  But it is a social service which even the government has to bless because they too get their water there!  The day care facility which he has started also functions in the same way, as a social service for everyone, not just Christians.

The next morning we got back on the main road (the side road to the first parish was about 8 feet wide, muddy in spots, yet our car was still constantly being passed by the motor scooters that everyone uses).  After about an hour travel further inland/upriver – towards the Cambodian border -- and two ferry rides, we arrived at Con En, a small island in one of the many branches of the Me Kong river.  We had a good visit with the priest and at the day care center he manages with the help of about 7 teachers and helpers.  More on that in the final wrap up.  But it has been a busy schedule of visiting and meeting.  All part of “bridging” hope, both for us and for the folks here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

2nd Installment

Dear Friends of Bridging Hope:

It is now Tuesday, Oct. 19, and Sr. Sen and I are in Da Nang, on the coast North and East of Saigon.  It is a beautiful city -- wonderful beach front along the ocean (under tremendous new development of resorts, restaurants, and at least one casino) and a growing modern city on both sides of the Han River which empties into the Da Nang Bay.  

We came here mainly to visit a shelter for elderly women run by the Sisters of St. Paul.

I'm learning that the various Catholic sisterhoods or orders of sisters do tremendous work here in Viet Nam.  Most of them have been here several hundred years as branches from orders in France (the former colonial power here).  They lost their many schools and hospitals after 1975, but have taken up other works of charity.  And they are growing, with lots of new members from among young women in Viet Nam.

The shelter we visited was quite an operation.  The main property is a training center for young sisters, but adjacent properties serve as locations for both a school for the disabled and the shelter for homeless women.  There are about thirty women there now, and two very elderly and crippled men.  One of the women is 108 years old.  Another we met, quite a vital character even though very old and crippled, had been a beggar in a marketplace for many years before she somehow came to this shelter. 

We got there around lunch time, and the spirit among the women and the eight sisters serving them was truly joyful.  None of the sense of a warehouse with elderly just sitting around in wheelchairs.  Rather it seemed a place of communal caring.  The women live in dorm like rooms -- 6 - 8 beds in a fairly spacious room.  And there are nice gardens for those who are ambulatory. 

There is also a working farm (with hogs, chickens, and rabbits as well as a variety of vegetable plots) which provides much of the food for the women as well as, I suspect, for the young sisters-in-training at the adjacent main property and for the folks in the school for the disabled.  In what seems typical Vietnamese cooperative style, much of the farm labor is done by young university students from the mountain/tribal areas who are provided a dorm house in the back of the property in return for their labor. 

While in Da Nang we also visited a workshop run by the same group of sisters where local women embroider table cloths and pillow cases as well as altar cloths for Catholic churches throughout the world.  We went there to buy some items -- the kinds of things that Sen can sell at fairs to benefit Bridging Hope. 

We had intended to have a relaxed "beach day" today, but it rained heavily most of the day.  So we took a taxi out to a magnificent Buddhist pagoda in the "marble mountains" on the south rim of Da Nang Bay.  It is the location of a beautiful new and huge (I'm guessing at least 150 feet high) statue of "Kwan Yin", the Buddhist "Mother of Compassion."  The statue is visible even at night (lighted) all along the Da Nang coast.  It reminded me both of the statues of Mary which one sees throughout southern Viet Nam, and also the famous statue of Christ that dominates the hills over Rio -- though these "marble mountains" (so called because they are the source of much of the marble used in the sculpture industry here) are not as high as those around Rio

Tomorrow we head back to Saigon for more meetings.

Till later, John

Monday, October 25, 2010

Viet Nam - First Installment

Dear Friends of Bridging Hope: 

Greetings from Viet Nam! 

Sr. Sen and I (John Kane, President of the Board of Bridging Hope) are traveling in Viet Nam for almost three weeks and we want to send some e-mail news about our trip -- along with some pictures. She has asked me to begin this "trip blog" and then she will review and edit and add photos before we send it out. 

We flew from San Francisco on Monday morning (Oct. 11) at 1:30 am and arrived in Saigon on Tuesday around noon. The flight went from San Francisco to Taipei, Taiwan, and then from Taipei to Saigon (now officially called Ho Chi Minh City). Our flights were with EVA airlines, based in Taiwan. Really a very good and relatively new Asian air company. 


I'm writing on Saturday, Oct. 16, because this is really the first time we've had to pause for such writing. We were met in Saigon by Fr. Joseph Tan, a Vietnamese-American Franciscan priest who is teaching at the Franciscan Seminary in Saigon. A wonderful man. Then after resting a bit at our hotel in the center of the city -- a great place called, honestly, Number One Hotel, right near the Unification Building (the old Presidential Palace), 

and near the Catholic Cathedral of Regina Pacis (Queen of Peace) –  

We had our first of many meals at Vietnamese restaurants. The experience of food here is a long and very good story itself, but we'll leave that for another telling.
Wednesday we visited both the Mai Tam home for the children of women with HIV/AIDS, many of whom also have AIDS,

and one of the homes of the women crippled by Polio that Sen has been helping for quite a few years. 

Both places that we visited were just houses or small apartment buildings on narrow and cluttered streets -- almost like back alleys -- in some of the many neighborhoods of Saigon. They were, in other words, not big institutions, but little places, each part of a network of such little places -- thus, a series of homes for the crippled women and a series of homes and shelters and workplaces for the mothers and their children. I put it this way since we Americans, I suspect, tend to think of social service locations in terms of bigger buildings and greater structures and organizations. There are such in Viet Nam, I believe, run mostly by the government. But the groups that Bridging Hope is helping are a different type of response to human needs -- much more a network of small responses (many sponsored by church groups) to needs otherwise unmet. We'll talk more about this later.

On Thursday we took a long bus trip (5 hours each way) North and West to Bao Loc from Saigon to visit a shelter for elderly women that is being run by a group of Catholic sisters. This is one of a number of locations that have been recommended to Sr. Sen as possible places Bridging Hope could help as a way to move ahead with our project of sponsoring a shelter for elderly women. It is way too early at this point to make any particular comments about this or that place.

We will be visiting a number of different efforts to help elderly women and will be learning much at each place as we talk with folks about their needs. It is as yet unclear whether BH will in the end affiliate with one such ongoing shelter and try to help them, just as we have done with the Mai Tam network that is helping Moms and kids with AIDS -- or whether we will try to start something new.
On Friday, for instance, we visited the Franciscan Seminary in Saigon where Fr. Joe Tan teaches, and met its president. He's a remarkable man named Paul Vinh. He'd trained and worked as an architect before becoming a Franciscan priest and was put in charge of this seminary (a 3-4 square block set of inter-connected buildings) shortly after it had been returned to the Franciscans by the government (who'd commandeered it after 1975 and turned it into a factory for processing mushrooms!). He's done a remarkable job of rebuilding the place -- structurally renovated and artistically beautiful (with gardens and little ponds with fish, etc.). And he has hopes of setting up a vocational training center (for some of the many people migrating to Saigon in search of better lives) on some adjacent land which was also returned by the government -- and perhaps also some facility for the elderly. So this presents another possible connection for Bridging Hope.

So much from me for now.JK