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Feb 10, 2024 330 Father Vinh Dong
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God Will Make a Way

Scared and alone on a boat in the middle of a stormy sea, little Vinh made a bargain with God…

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, I was still a child, the second last of 14 children. My wonderful parents were devout Catholics, but since Catholics suffered persecution in Vietnam, they wanted us children to escape to a different country for a better life.

The refugees usually left in tiny wooden boats, which would often capsize at sea, leaving none of the passengers alive. So, my parents decided that we would try to leave one at a time, and they made great sacrifices to save enough to pay the tremendous costs.

The first time I tried to leave, I was only nine. It took me two years and fourteen attempts before I finally managed to escape. It would take another ten years for my parents to make it across.

The Escape

Crowded onto a small wooden boat with 77 others, 11-year-old me was on my own in the middle of nowhere. We faced many hazards. On the seventh night, as a huge storm battered us, a lady beseeched me: “We may not survive this storm; whatever your religion is, pray to your God.” I responded that I had already prayed. I had, in fact, set a bargain: “Save me, and I’ll be a good boy.” As the wind and waves whipped over the boat that night, I promised to dedicate my life to serving God and His people for the rest of my life.

When I woke the next morning, we were still afloat, and the sea was calm. We were still in dire peril, however, because we had run out of food and water. Two days later, my prayers were answered when we finally landed in Malaysia after ten days at sea.

Starting a new life in a refugee camp, I set out to be faithful to the bargain I had made with God. Without parents, without anyone to take care of me, without anyone to tell me what to do, I put my total trust in God and asked Him to guide me. I went to church every day, and the priest soon asked me to be an altar server. Father Simon was a French missionary priest who worked really hard, helping refugees with all their needs, especially their immigration applications. He became my hero. He found such joy in serving others that I wanted to be like him when I grew up.

With the challenges I faced in starting a new life, I forgot my old promise. At the end of Year 10, as I thought about what I’d really like to do with my life, our Lord reminded me of my desire to become a priest. They arranged work experience for me with our parish priest, Monsignor Keating. I loved it so much that I decided to join the seminary once I completed high school. As my parents had immigrated to Australia by then, I joined Saint Charles Seminary in Perth.

Keeper of Promises

For the past 26 years, I have been serving as a priest for the Archdiocese of Perth. Like Father Simon, I have found great joy in serving God’s people. My biggest challenge was being appointed to found a new parish on the outskirts of Perth in 2015. I was at a loss. There was a school but no church or facilities, so we started by meeting to say Mass in a classroom.

I sought advice from my fellow priests. Two of their remarks stuck with me. One said: “Build a church, and then you will have people,” another said: “Build a community. When you have the people, you can build a church.” I asked myself, “Do I have the chicken, or do I have the egg?” I decided that I needed both the chicken and the egg, so I built both the community AND the church.

A Vietnamese refugee with scant chances of surviving persecution in his home country, who feared he wouldn’t live through the night of a terrifying storm in the middle of the ocean, building a church community in the Australian bush—I am still amazed at the marvelous works of the Lord!!

The Dominican Sisters helped me  to build the community and also in fundraising to make Saint John Paul II Catholic Church a reality. Scores of generous hearts from other parishes in Perth and all over the world extended us a helping hand, and I am thankful to God for all their support. Instances like these repeatedly remind me that the word ‘Catholic’ means universal—no matter where we are in the world, we are the people of God. Our church, which started with a dozen people, now has over 400 parishioners. Our members come from 31 different cultures. Every week, I see new faces. As I come to learn about these diverse cultures and people who share a common faith, it helps deepen my relationship with God.

Receiving Begets Giving

Although I enjoy my life and ministry in Australia, I have not forgotten my roots in Vietnam. The Lord has been using me to support an orphanage run by Dominican Sisters. Along with fundraising, I also bring people on mission journeys to help the nuns take care of the orphans. The youth immerse themselves in the missionary work, feeding them, teaching them, doing whatever is needed, and forming a relationship that continues beyond the length of our visits. No one goes home without experiencing a profound shift in their outlook on life.

It has been over 40 years since I was on that little boat where I made a promise to God. My relationship with God had been nurtured by my parents to reach that point of surrender. When they taught me to say the Rosary, I thought it was boring. I would complain, “Why do we have to say the same prayers over and over again? Can’t we say them once and then say the same, the same, the same so I can go out and play.” But I came to appreciate that the Rosary is a summary of the entire Bible, and the repetition of prayer enables me to meditate upon the mysteries. I tell people now that BIBLE stands for Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.

My parents had given me the formation to be faithful to the promise I made on the boat, and God, in His mercy, took care of me when my parents could not. They continued to pray for their children, entrusting us to the Lord, and it was a delightful surprise for them when I became a priest. Now, it is my job to support families in nurturing faith and counseling anyone who comes to me for advice: “Do not be afraid to discern a call from God. Take time to talk to God and allow God to talk to you. You will slowly get to know what God would like you to do in your life.”

I continue to pray every day that I will truly be faithful to that promise I made to God—to be His child forevermore.

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Father Vinh Dong

Father Vinh Dong has served in the Perth archdiocese for over 26 years.

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