And we were really crazy! Who would spend the Tết season not celebrating at home but wandering instead, and not for amusement either. We only wandered into areas that no one would want to go to, places that hide the poor and the desperate of society, in cemeteries, in dump sites, under the bridges. I was ordained almost 5 years ago, and since I am pastor of an American parish, I am able to take vacations at Tết time. So I have "gone crazy" in the last 4 Tết's.
But then, I am not the only one who is crazy, lots of other people are just as nuts as I am. For example at Tết in 2007, I was wandering with a whole group of friends, as I told you in one of the articles in the series A Trip
And then, at Tết last year (2008) right on New year's Eve, I left Saigon with a group of friends for Kontum to celebrate Tết with the Thượng people (a minority group living in the mountain areas). Saying celebrating Tet with them, but actually it was to help them to have something to celebrate Tet with. Especially in that trip there were some journalists, and even a cop. These friends had been working with me for years to help the street kids. We bugged them many times. They love the children just as much as I, and maybe even more sometime. Please be patient, my friends, I will tell you later a story that will prove my point.
And this year's Tết is no different, except that I had brought my parents with me to celebrate Tet with the extended family. However, I only promised to spend only the 28th thru noon of New Year day to celebrate with them. Before and after Tet, I asked permission to be a "nut".Luckily, my parents agreed, they understood, even though I am their only child and they wanted me to be home to go with them to visit and take New Year well wishes to our relatives. Thank you so much, mom and dad! With their permission, I was free to "go crazy".
Our group of crazy people included me and those never met once - I had made an announcement on my website, inviting all who wanted to come- took off about midnight of the 13th, early morning of January 14th, 2009. I had just landed at Tân Sơn Nhất airport at 10:30pm on January 13th, but now, only 3 hours later, I and a group of young people were already flying into the night of Saigon.
We were hurrying to take off on the night of the 13th for a special reason: it was my 33rd birthday. I wanted to use the money that my parishioners and friends gave me for birthday gift to do something meaningful. So , I invited a group of young friends to go with me on the night trip. You are probably bored with my stories by now, "same old, same old", so today I will invite you to read an article by Mimosa Thanh Nhàn, one of the crazy people that night.
The excursion on Fr Thông's birthday concluded with much joy, leaving warm memories in each of our hearts. It is very true that love can warm up the cold of the night, as I witnessed during this trip
We met at 10pm, and after we all got there, the group had a late "snack" at Hủ tiếu Quỳnh, just to store up energy for the new day
Really, eat! Just in case Father won't let us eat later
After eating, the group went to Nhà Thờ Đức Bà (Our Lady's Basilica) to wait for Fr Thông. We looked all over, but not for long. Father appeared, his face beaming, he shook hands with everyone. We gathered together so that Father could introduced us and we could get acquainted with each other. Then we divided the blankets and put them into bags, the money into envelops. We held hands and prayed, then Father gave us blessings, and we started out.
13 motorcycles, with 26...crazy people, from all over Viet Nam, Austria, Australia, Canada and France, flew into the night. No, we were not racing with each other, and we were not a gang of thugs, we went to share happiness. Thank You, Lord, and thank you ,our blessed Mother, for keeping us safe.
Together, on the streets of area 5, area 10, area1... two by two we went. It was cold, and everybody was cold, but there was always a smile on each face, such a heart warming sight. We scouted the streets and all the corners for the human shapes curling up in the cold. They are looked pitiful, their bony forms envelopped by the cold , but where else could they rest after a long hard day?
We stopped, some went with Father, whom we called "uncle Thông", and approached them. Uncle Thông knelt down next to them, "Auntie!", "Brother!", "Sister!", he gently called to wake them up. They were a little surprised to hear: "Somebody has a birthday today, and he wants to offer you a little present".. "a little blanket to keep you warm", and then a little lì-xì envelope pressed into their hands. Even before they fully understood what was going on, a happy smile brightened up their faces when they felt the expression of love.
I suddenly thought, at this time, I normally would be wrapped up in my comfortable bed; I never realized how lucky I was, compared to many other people. Here, not that far away, the situation is so different. Looking at the elderly men and women curling up in the cold, one covering himself with a raincoat, another with a jacket or a light blanket, I shivered. Maybe some of them are already content but to us, the "night wanderers", they were so pitiful.
This night gave us much to think about. We will never forget the surprised but happy look in the eyes, the gratitude, the way the cold night got warmer with a little blanket, the happy smiles because the lì-xì envelops meant a good meal the next day. Just a little sharing, a little caring, could be so meaningful and could bring so much warmth.
After spreading love on all the different roads, we ran out of blankets and envelops around 3:20am. Uncle Thông treated everyone to an early breakfast. We ate and got to know each other. We finally had a chance to sing Happy Birthday to him, though it was a little late, since it was already the morning of the 14th. We finished after 4am but we had no place to go, the boarding houses were not open yet, neither could uncle Thong go back to his hotel yet.
Uncle Thông could not leave his children orphaned, he came with us, we all went to the park across from New World Hotel to hang out. So... crazy! Uncle Thông shared with us his experiences in Viet Nam as well as abroad. The more we heard, the more we found out about the horrors that happen to the poor children, those street kids, the little girls who grow up without a family, without parents to love and care for them. We came to understand how necessary love is in this life.
Love makes people become better. Love and care can lift up so many unfortunate lives. Let us make a little bit of sacrifice, just a little bit.
The morning got colder and colder, we all started shivering. So uncle Thông had an idea: exercise to the 18-step-Cha-Cha, so he became the "dance instructor" . OK,... let's do the 18-step Cha Cha...The dance lesson was so much fun even without music, only the steps to Father's counting. And it was very warming. When there is a chance, we will perform for you the 18-step Cha Cha, it is really beautiful.
Dawn began to color the sky with pink shades, we said goodbye to each other and returned to our normal duties, to the trivials of life, each searching for our own meaning of happiness. One may not realize happiness lies in the simplest things.
Mimosa Thanh Nhàn recounted the story of crazy people on the streets, but I would like to conclude it with some reflections.on "crazy" people at home. Lots of people wanted to join us as "nuts" on the street but were not able to for one reason or another. However, though at home, they were no less crazy than we were. Let me list a couple of examples below:
Some people in Canada and France, after reading on my website that I was planning this trip, they immediately bought international money order and sent me with "Happy Birthday " wishes, without even knowing who I was. That is very crazy! Only crazy people would send money to strangers like that. And then another friend living in the USA, who always followed the stories of my excursion, asked me: "How come you haven't had any more night trip", I told her "I'm out of money", she immediately sent me some money. Truly crazy!
Another example was an elderly lady. Three days later, Hotel service gave me a thick envelop that had been left for me. Inside, there was a note: "I am almost 80 year old. I heard you were going to celebrate your birthday with the street kids. I'm sending my grandchild to take you this money that I had saved up to celebrate Tết ". I counted 152 thoudsand đồng, the biggest denomination was 5000 đồng, the rest were 2000, 1000 đồng bills. That means she had saved the money little by little all year long to celebrate Tết, and then...! I started to cried, I could not control the tears rolling down. She was the woman that Jesus talked about: " That widow gave more than anybody else. Truly, they all gave from their surplus, but this woman gave from her poverty, she gave all that she had to live on (Mat 12:43-44)
As I was writing these lines, I received an email from an elder priest:
As an older priest, over 70 years of age, I am very happy and I praise the Lord for giving us young successors who are very passionate and full of creativity. However, between ourselves, I would like to remind you to be sure to cultivate your inner life, so that God is ever present in you, guiding you on your paths, and especially keeping you from pride when you succeed as well as despair when you should meet with failure. At the same time be careful of members of the fair sex who admire you and follow you, because priests are also human and suffer from the effects of Original Sin. In any case, place all your love and trust in God, and always "do it all in love"(1 Cor 16:14).Lm Theophile, fsf..
Yes Father, thank you for reminding me! I thank all who have been journeying with me one way or another, especially in your prayers. I would like to ask that Father and everyone continue to pray for me, so that I don't become proud and vain, so that I always realize that I am nothing, only an instrument that God uses to bring peace and happiness to my brethren! May I always be a "crazy one" with God and in God.
I forgot, if anyone would like to "go crazy" with us, please take out some time, search out the less fortunate than we are, those abandoned on the margins of society! You will find out being "crazy" brings its own peace and happiness.
Lm Martinô Nguyễn Bá Thông
Saint Anne Catholic Church, February 19th, 2009
Translated by K.N. The original version in Vietnamese entitled "Lại... Một Chuyến Đi - Chuyện Thứ 2: Chuyện Những Người 'ĐIÊN'"