|| By Gabriela Romeri
The road that led Lam Minh Hua to Maryknoll began halfway across the world in Vietnam. There, in a hamlet called LaNang, on the outskirts of the eastern coastal province of Da Nang, Hua, who will become Maryknoll’s newest priest on May 31, was born to Catholic parents Hung Minh Hua and Tu Thi Doan, both rice farmers.
The most enduring memory Hua has of his early childhood in Vietnam is of his family—parents, brother and the cousin who helped raise the two boys—walking to church every Sunday. “I remember clearly, it was far,” says Hua, “but we walked together every Sunday, no matter what.”
His father, who was himself a seminarian in his youth, later fought in the Vietnam War on the side of South Vietnam and was taken as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese for eight years.
As a result, Hua’s family was eventually granted the chance to immigrate to the United States in 1993 when Hua was 7 years old. Settling in Tacoma, Wash., Hua and his younger brother Vien learned English in public school.
Both brothers were also altar servers, which Hua considers his first ministry. His parents also enrolled him in the Boy Scouts, where values such as loyalty and bravery were instilled at an early age.
“Home pretty much ran like we were still in Vietnam. There was Vietnamese food, I spoke in Vietnamese with my parents but English with my brother,” says Hua.
While both of the boys adapted easily to the new language and dual culture, Hua recalls, “For my parents it was certainly difficult. They came here without any training or degrees to help them with jobs here.”
His father’s English gradually improved and he secured a job as a custodian in a middle school, while his mother worked at a clothing store. “In 2000 my family finally bought our own house,” says Hua, who was in high school at the time.
That same year Hua began volunteering as a counselor in his parish, St. Rita in Tacoma, helping youth ages 8 to 16. It was then, near the end of high school, that he says, “I had the luck of randomly picking out a book about a missionary Jesuit who worked with Native Americans in the 1840s.” That Jesuit was Pierre-Jean De Smet, and Hua felt a longing not just for the priesthood but also for mission work.
When he told his pastor, a Jesuit, the priest walked to the vestibule of the church, where he had one copy of Maryknoll magazine and gave it to Hua.
“The stories in the magazine motivated me to learn more,” says Hua. “As I learned more about Maryknoll, I also learned more about my own vocational calling.” Soon he contacted Brother Tim
Raible, then Maryknoll’s mission promotion director in Seattle, who referred Hua to Father Michael Snyder, Maryknoll’s vocation director at the time.
“Hua was in the final stages of admission into Maryknoll when the requirements changed,” recalls Father Snyder. “Right then the age limit to enter went from 18 to 21 years old.” So Father Snyder counseled him to attend college first: “And I promised Hua and his parents, if he decided to attend college, I would visit him four times a year, two times every semester,” says Father Synder.
The Maryknoll priest kept his promise, visiting Hua at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, where Hua studied and worked part-time at a concession stand. Hua went on retreats and visited a Maryknoll mission in Cambodia, where he witnessed Father James Noonan reaching out to people with aids.
“He went places where no one else would go,” recalls Hua of Father Noonan. “He touched people, visited them and prayed over them. It really attracted me to what Maryknoll does in terms of living out the Gospel.”
As soon as he finished college— with a bachelor of arts in philosophy and minors in history and religion—Hua formally entered Maryknoll in August 2007.
Soon after, he secured a master of divinity degree with a concentration in world mission at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. As part of his studies, Hua spent two years in Tanzania, where he learned Swahili at the language school in Musoma and mission by witnessing the work of Maryknoll Father Ramon McCabe. “I always noticed so many people came to him for help, and he said to me: ‘You can’t help everybody, but you want to help the most people that you can,’ ” says Hua of the veteran Maryknoll missioner.
In Africa Hua came face to face with overwhelming poverty and crushing conditions coupled with a grace and hospitality that blew him away. He remembers an invitation to dinner at the home of one couple. “We sat down to eat and there was one plate of ugali with three spoons,” he recalls, referring to the maize-like porridge eaten in East Africa. “It was barely enough to feed one person, this one plate, and the wife was pregnant, but they were so happy to be sharing this plate with me.”
In another parish on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Maryknoll Father John Waldrep encouraged Hua to venture out on his own. “There was this little village, kind of an outstation; it was far from the regular parish,” says Hua, explaining that the rural people had to walk more than an hour to get to church, similar to his own childhood trek to church. “So Father Waldrep sent me out there to see what I could do.”
Within a week, the people cleared an overgrown plot of land in the middle of a field and began bringing poles and tarps, sticks and wood, to build their own outstation church. “Every Sunday when I got there, I’d see they’d added more poles, more tarp,” Hua says. “It was a really beautiful way to pray, out in the middle of nature. They were people of great faith. They came every week, bringing their own chairs and mats.”
“The beauty of this experience is that because I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’ they were able to build that little outpost church,” Hua continues. “If I hadn’t gone out there, they would have had no one to say ‘yes.’ That’s all they were waiting for. They were all ready.”
Featured Image: Before Mass in rural outstation, Seminarian Lam Hua shares a light moment with young parishioners and later (above) shares with them the Body of Christ. (Photos by D. Kim/Tanzania)