By Theresa Carson
As a seminarian, Father Truong Thong Le SVD, 30, fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Thailand. During his last few months there, he was assigned to care for the youth in the Ban Mae Marie home for children who live with HIV/AIDS. He saw many of the teenagers as younger siblings.
“I got to know them over those two years,” he said. “When I was given the responsibility of overseeing the teenagers, I felt responsible for them—taking them to school, telling them the value of life and the value of staying in school. I wanted them to know that we [Divine Word Missionaries] will be there to journey with them.”
During one of the most difficult times there, he felt like the father of the Prodigal Son, or in this case daughter. One of the 16-year-old girls who was very street smart abruptly left the home. She left while Father Truong was out of town on business.
“My heart just shattered,” he said. “She ran away with a boyfriend who happened to be an older man in his late 30s.”
Father Truong tried to find the teenager to convince her to return to the center. He knew that if she did not return soon that she would have difficult time being admitted again. He contacted her friends, found her cell phone number and called her.
“I heard her voice. I was so happy,” he said. “I said, ‘Thank God you’re still alive.’ She hung up. A few months later, she called back to apologize. That’s when I understood there’s so much going on, things that I don’t know about. I really experienced the pain of the father. That’s such a heartbreaking experience.”
He learned a great deal from the youth. “It reminds me of my own life and how much I ran away from God. How much God continues to wait for me to return,” he said. “That speaks to a deeper truth, a universal truth. We are all returning to God. God is continuing to wait for all of us.”
Returning to the United States proved to be more of an adjustment than living in Thailand. Father Truong had grown accustomed to not having water, air conditioning and other utilities available at his fingertips.
“Coming back to the United States was a big culture shock. We [Divine Word Missionaries] prepare to go to another culture, but we don’t prepare for the coming back,” he said with a laugh.
He has been back for two years now, completing his studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Some of his classes are designed to help him assimilate back into his home culture.
“We have to name our losses,” he said. “As missionaries, a lot of times we jump in, and we don’t deal with these little things and they haunt us later on. There are losses that we have to grieve. We have to be like babies again. We have to give up our native languages. We have to give up our families. We have to give up our community here, our home countries. All of these things, we really have to grieve our losses.
“Once we’ve grieved our losses it opens us up to accept something that is breaking open in our midst,” said Father Truong, who moved to the United States with his family when he was 6. “I have that experience of being uprooted, of moving to the United States. For me going through that again and choosing to do it, it’s a little bit easier.”
Since his diaconate ordination in October, he has served as a transitional deacon at St. Henry on Chicago’s Northside. The diverse parish is the spiritual home of people from 32 different ethnic groups.
“What I enjoy the most is stepping into a role of deacon as one who proclaims the Gospel,” he said. “It’s a privilege to proclaim the Word of God. It’s a humbling experience.”
Father Truong has delivered homilies in Vietnamese and English, sometimes addressing four generations of Vietnamese Catholics at one Mass.
“I try my best,” he said. “I use Google translator. They still understand me, so I’m happy.”
His first assignment as a priest will be in the Australia Province. Since Thailand is a part of the Australia Province, he may be asked to return. If so, he is ready. Before leaving, he received a Missal in Thai. He has been practicing the language spoken during Mass.
In the meantime, he marvels at the journey so far.
“I never really have been a rule-following person, but somehow in my life—with all the mistakes that I’ve made—God plays a role,” he said. “Somehow, God uses those mistakes to shape my life. Even my own weaknesses, my own limitations.”
He added, “The more we let go of our ego, of our sense of success and of what we consider an identifier of who we are, the more we actually find ourselves more fulfilled and satisfied.”
Father Truong, who professed vows in 2012, celebrated his first Mass at St. Henry. Later this summer, he will travel to see family and friends in Charlotte, N.C. His family and friends in Charlotte are equally amazed, he said.
“Everyone who has known me since I was little cannot imagine that I’m here right now,” he said. “I call my vocation a miracle because no one would imagine me doing this. I was always involved in the Church, but I was always considered a troublemaker. They said, ‘If God can convert him, if God can call him, then God can do anything for us.”