A Place of
by Brother George Van Grieken, FSC
LARGE OR SMALL, AT DE LA
SALLE CHAPEL EACH EVENT CARRIES INSIDE IT
THE SPIRIT OF FAITH AND ZEAL THAT GIVES LIFE TO EVERYTHING THAT
THE LASALLIAN SISTERS AND THE CHRISTIAN BROTHERS DO WITHIN THIS COMMUNITY.
THERE ARE NO SMALL MIRACLES HERE;
EACH MIRACLE IS LARGE TO THE HEART THAT IS TOUCHED.
Brother Joseph Hiep.
|One cannot visit De La Salle Chapel without going away
amazed. Here in the midst of a busy residential area of San Jose, California, six
Lasallian Sisters and five Christian Brothers from Vietnam provide a set of deeply
appreciated educational programs for the local Vietnamese Catholic community. In this city
with the largest Vietnamese population of any city in the United States, De La Salle
Chapel sits as both an oasis of safety and a cauldron of activity.
From morning until evening, every day of the week, the voices of children and teenagers echo among the set of small church buildings, classroom cottages, and a converted garage. The playground is festooned with banners from the last Vietnamese cultural celebration, and adults pick up or drop off their small children, secure in the knowledge they will be well cared for. Inside the main building, Vietnamese senior citizens pray their devotions each Friday morning. Next door, the Sisters lead a group of children in religious songs. On the basketball courts outside, Vietnamese teenagers practice their folk dancing in preparation for the upcoming New Years program at the Civic Auditorium and inside the main classroom Vietnamese Catechists discuss their lesson plans for the following weekends catechism classes.
|Even a brief visit to one of the programs leaves one impressed with the spirit of hope in the minds and hearts of the people served by the Chapel. The experience of a group of people arriving to take photographs for this article is typical. Driving up to De La Salle Chapel, the crew finds a set of church buildings similar to ones that might be seen in a small southern town. Within minutes after arriving they are greeted by a humble Vietnamese man, with a smile that bespeaks pure heart. He identifies himself as Brother Valery and quickly makes them feel comfortable. A short while later, Sister Catherine is introduced as the youngest Sister, but somehow the strength in her eyes goes far beyond her young age.|
As the group stands talking in one of the rooms where the afterschool program is held, Duke, the first of several young students, arrives. He looks up at the guests in the room, then quickly walks over to where Sister Catherine is writing the days quote from the Bible on the hoard. Sister speaks a few short words in Vietnamese to him, after which he again looks up at the guests and says "Good afternoon." She explains that the children are shy and that Duke had just forgotten his manners. More students arrive. Each time Sister prompts the children in Vietnamese; they say "Good afternoon" to the guests in the room. A big smile spreads across her face as another student, Christian, proudly shows her school homework marked with an "A." She tells Christian to add two stars next to her name on the chart that is taped to the wall. However, Christian never adds those two stars; the recognition from the Sister seems to be all that she needs. Several older students go over to Brother Valery to show him their homework from school. Again a beaming smile comes over Brother Valerys face as he congratulates each one of the students.
Sister Catherine explains that most of the students who have just begun to speak English, and dont understand it very well. Not speaking their newly adopted language, and missing their parents who are away at work, they are alone during the day in an English-speaking school system, where they struggle to learn both a new culture and a new language. Their parents are grateful that their children can come to a safe place after school to study with people who not only treat them with the utmost respect, but who can speak to them in their own language. The expressions on the faces of both Brother Valery and Sister Catherine make it obvious why De La Salle Chapel is as special to the parents as it is to their children.
UPON FINDING THE IDEAL LOCATION FOR THEIR WORK,
Once the photographers begin shooting their rolls of film, all of the work that was done to carefully set up each shot is quickly rearranged by the students. The globe that had been so carefully placed to show up at the edge of a picture is removed by Duke as he crawls across the table on what seems to be a mission of some sort. Behind Sister Catherine, students walk in and out of the photo session to share their days events with Brother Valery. What has happened to these "shy" Vietnamese children? Sensing that the students are getting restless, Sister Catherine stands up and, in a most authoritative voice, firmly speaks two or three words in Vietnamese. The entire room instantly becomes totally silent. Even Brother Valery sits down.
LA SALLE CHAPEL
WEEKLY SCHEDULE OF PROGRAMS
MONDAY TO FRIDAY
8:00am to 5:00pm
EACH FRIDAY (ADDITIONAL)
6:30am to 8:30am
10:00am to 4:00pm
Morning RCIA PROGRAM
|Within a short time, the students enthusiasm fills the room. Right before recess, Sister Catherine once again addresses them with a few firm words in Vietnamese. Silence falls upon the room. She turns and faces all the children and begins singing the most angelic Vietnamese words of what becomes universal prayer. In total unison, the students join in. At that moment, the guests forget that they dont know a word of Vietnamese or that they arent Vietnamese. An overwhelming sense of unity pervades the guests as they focus on the sung prayer of the children.|
The Sisters and Brothers convey a respect that seems to melt away boundaries of race, language, or age. On the playground, two young boys share the warmth of their friendship as they huddle inside the equipment to keep warm. At the day-care center, hundreds of valentine hearts hang from the ceiling as a sea of preschool children sit on the floor singing "One, Two, Three Cheese" for 20 minutes.
The constant activity happens without advertisement, without definitive plans, and without a great deal of money deliberately. The only advertisement the Sisters and Brothers have is themselves. "The programs all grew by word-of-mouth," says Brother Phong, the first Director of Dc La Salle Chapel. We started small, and soon the Vietnamese people came to us more and more. Now we have more than we can sometimes handle, but we never turn anyone away."
Begun as a small set of programs as part of the diocesan office of Catholic Charities and the Vietnamese Catholic Mission, De La Salle Chapel now offers programs in day care, after-school tutoring, catechetics, Vietnamese culture and history, RCIA, and job placement. Each of these initiatives came about in the same way that De La Salle Chapel itself came about, with a generous application of faith and zeal.
Years ago, the Sisters and Brothers were involved in separate activities around the United States, simply trying to survive. Thirty-six Brothers had come to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 and had been spread out among four refugee camps in various parts of the country. It was not until 1988, at a gathering of the "Subdistrict of Vietnam in Diaspora" in Paris, France, that the Brothers resolved to focus their efforts and begin a specific ministry to the large Vietnamese communities that existed outside of Vietnam itself. After several options were considered, they decided to go to San Jose, the city in the United States with the largest Vietnamese population. The Lasallian Sisters from Vietnam had been there since 1981 and had asked for help in working with the local Vietnamese Catholic community of 12,000 people. Brother Phong explains, "It was important to all of us to work together in a common apostolate. Together we are better able to live out our Lasallian charism in our service to the Vietnamese youth, especially those who are so very poor."
So it was in 1990 that Brother Phong drove a station wagon stuffed with furniture and books from Philadelphia to California to head up this new work. Under his leadership, they were able to raise enough funds to buy a large house and begin offering classes and tutorial services to Vietnamese youngsters. Five years later, they found the former Christian Science Church property that is now De La Salle Chapel.
Although the San Jose area was an ideal location for their work, they had raised only half of the required funds. A few weeks after the property went on sale, Brother Phong asked permission to have a Mass said in the chapel in order to pray for a miracle. Packed with the old and the young, the chapel vibrated with Vietnamese song and the communitys fervent prayers. A week later, the property was theirs, paid for by no-interest loans from many who attended that Mass.
Such faith and zeal continues to be evident in the growth of their work today. Current plans call for the Sisters to take over the operations at De La Salle Chapel. The Brothers are actively searching for another location in San Jose to expand their work among Vietnamese youth, perhaps by providing an after-school program that would be almost totally free of charge, similar to the LEO (Lasallian Educational Opportunities) Program in Oakland, California.
Good sense, Gods Providence, and hard work have all played a big part in making financial ends meet at De La Salle Chapel. For many years, one of the Brothers commuted every day from San Jose to Saint Marys College in Moraga to work in the computer center, earning half the income of the community. Today, a number of Brothers and Sisters retain their outside jobs with Catholic Charities, local parishes, and County Social Services in order to keep their community solvent. The funds that come from the day-care and after-school programs help support the communities as well. But these funds are not transactions," says Brother Phong. They only help in defraying the programs expenses. We never turn anyone away, and we never question anyones reason for not being able to help pay for the program." Beyond all this, the Brothers and Sisters each year send 10% of their income to the Brothers in Vietnam to help in their educational efforts as well. A $450 expenditure can help a child in San Jose attend the five-week summer program, while in Vietnam it pays for a full years tuition for at least ten students.
One of the bright lights at De La Salle Chapel was Brother Joseph Hiep, who died of an aneurysm at the young age of 45 on September 7, 1998. A creative artist, musician, educator, and all-around talent, he escaped from Vietnam as a young man and became deeply tied to the Amerasian youth within the Vietnamese community of San Jose (who were called "children of the dust" because they were fathered by American GIs during the war years and then abandoned by both the Vietnamese and the Americans). For these dislocated young people, Brother Joseph founded a tutoring and job placement outreach program. He was the real soul of the community," says Brother Phong. We miss him very much." Brother Joseph is one of the reasons that Dc La Salle Chapel continues to shine among the 80,000 Vietnamese people who now live in San Jose.
clear that in all of the many programs at De La Salle Chapel,
Whether at a jubilant Mass sung in Vietnamese at Saint Patricks Church, or among 3,000 attendees at the festive New Years cultural show at the Civic Auditorium, or inside of a small classroom where a Sister happily braids the hair of a young girl, everyone who touches the life of Dc La Salle Chapel is changed by the experience.
Large or small, each event carries inside it the spirit of faith and zeal that gives life to everything that the Lasallian Sisters and the Christian Brothers do within the Vietnamese Catholic community. There are no small miracles here; each miracle is large to the life and the heart that is touched.
Cathy Locke contributed to
of this article.