By Theresa Carson
Sometimes when we face danger, we automatically revert to our first language. Such was the case for Father Benjamin Binh Le, 42, when he encountered an armed robber at the rectory where he served in Ecuador.
He was in Esmeralda, Ecuador, fulfilling his Cross-Cultural Training Program at the time. As part of the program, he served as a parish administrator while the pastor took a long-awaited vacation. The parish is located in an economically disenfranchised area. His parishioners were keenly aware of the possible perils and arranged for someone to stay at the rectory with him at night so he’d be safe. However, the intruder entered during the day.
Father Le had returned to the rectory after Mass when he heard the dog barking. That’s when he came face to face with the thief. In the shock of the moment, he spoke to the man in English, asking, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Startled, the man ran off and climbed the wall of the churchyard. Father Le counts his blessings. Violent robberies in that part of Ecuador are common. Guns are illegal, so perpetrators use knives and other sharp objects.
That episode was not the first hardship he faced in Ecuador nor would it be the last. A few weeks after arriving, his eye began to burn while he was showering. He realized that soap had gotten in his eye because his eyelid was open and paralyzed. Half of his face drooped. He was stricken with Bell’s Palsy.
The condition, which lasted for months, severely impaired his ability to learn the Spanish language and to assimilate into the Ecuadoran community. The culture values social time during meals. During his first weeks in Ecuador, he had anticipated going places and meeting people. Instead, he slurred his words. Eating became a messy ordeal.
“It is very difficult to learn a new culture and language because I couldn’t speak or eat properly,” Father Le said. “They take eating seriously. They take their time.”
The people around him showed great compassion, though. “They were very understanding once they knew what it was,” he said. “They were very accommodating. They often gave me a straw to help me eat.”
Fortunately, 70 percent of patients with Bell’s Palsy eventually regain facial movement. After a series of injections, medicine and physical therapy, Father Le recovered. He said that the experience helped him be more in solidarity with people who are sick or have speech impediments.
The hardships continued. For a time, he served people in southern Quito in an area called Caupichu. He was not prepared for the cold weather at the higher altitude. A priest gave a poncho to him. Religious sisters brought him blankets. He also purchased second-hand clothing for a dollar apiece.
And yet he knew that he was materially better off than many whom he served. One weekend at La Sagrada Familia church in Esmeraldas, as he counted the Mass stipends, his most reliable altar server joined him. Shortly after the girl sat next to him, he was called away.
When he returned, he noticed a dollar missing and the girl gone. He found the girl and asked her about the money. She denied taking it. Later, he learned that she had taken the money and bought bread for herself and other children.
“She really taught me a lesson,” he said. “We often don’t look at the needs of those around us, but if we do, we see why they do the things they do. The money in the bank belongs to the poor because they need it.”
From then on, he tried to have marmalade and bread for the altar servers.
On the island of La Isla Grande in Esmeraldas, he noticed that the people were starving. The Divine Word parish supports the group that feeds the poor and offers prayer services. On more than one occasion, he witnessed children fighting for food, fighting to survive. So many people needed food.
“The people with food tickets line up, and sometimes even those without tickets,” he said, recalling how heartbroken he was seeing the mothers beg for food for their children. “If only I could close my eyes and turn rock into bread.”
When he returned to the United States, he visited his parents in Southern California. They made rich Vietnamese dishes to welcome him home, yet he struggled to eat, remembering the poverty that faced the people he had served.
“If I could only share this with the children,” said Father Le, who professed first vows in 2012.
During the two years since his return to the United States, Father Le completed his studies at Catholic Theological Union and served as a transitional deacon at Queenship of Mary parish in the Diocese of Joliet.
His first Mass was celebrated on May 27 in the Vietnamese language at Queenship of Mary. His first assignment will be with the Society of the Divine Word’s Western Province.
Although he would like to return to South America, he is grateful for the assignment near his parents. “When I was in college, I made a promise to God to take care of my parents, and I thank God for this opportunity,” he said.
He added, “Ordination to me means service to my brothers and sisters and to bring them God’s love and to help them shine with the brightness of Christ in them.”