By Theresa Carson
When newly ordained Father Khánh Minh Hà SVD, 32, went to South America for his missionary formation a few years ago, the Spanish language tripped him up and opened his world.
As part of his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP), a component of the Divine Word formation process, Father Khánh spent two years in Ecuador. Known to his confreres as being reserved, he lived in Quito for the first six months to learn Spanish. Then, he was assigned to Ventanas, a six-hour drive south-southeast of Quito.
“When I first arrived, it was difficult—the language,” he said with a bright smile during a Facebook Messenger conversation from Techny where he is in COVID quarantine.
In Ecuador, he often tried to use body language to communicate what he needed and when that did not work, he fumbled with words. A woman who worked in the rectory helped him practice the language.
One day, when he went to the kitchen in search of tea, she asked him what he wanted, “¿Qué deseas?” She laughed when instead of saying, “Quiero té” (I want tea), he mixed up his noun and replied, “Te quiero.”
Father Khánh, whom they called Pablito because his baptismal name is Paul, joyfully recalls the stories of Ecuador—even those that might frighten his loved ones. Most of Father Khánh’s family lives in Vietnam, where he grew up. In 2007 when he was 19, his Divine Word superiors chose him and two other seminarians to study in the United States.
In Ecuador as in the United States, he encountered people of different cultures. At Sagrado Corazón de Jesús parish in Ventanas, he worked with mestizo people. In Ludo, a small town in the Andes Mountains of Southern Ecuador, he ministered to indigenous people. And in Esmeraldas, a port city in the north, he served the African Ecuadoran people.
The Esmeraldas Province and the northern part of Ecuador that borders Colombia is known for being dangerous. Kidnappings are not uncommon. In fact, the U.S. State Department warns travelers that if they run into trouble in this region, the embassy might not be able to get them out. Yet, this reputation did not dissuade Father Khánh from visiting Basílica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de las Lajas, known in English as the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Las Lajas.
When asked if he felt safe in Colombia, he responded with a story. He said that traveling to Colombia by public transportation did not scare him, especially after an encounter with robbers in Ventanas. On that occasion, a mistaken cultural stereotype may have worked in his favor.
One afternoon, following a youth Bible study meeting, he prayed alone in the chapel. He heard a scream. He ran outside to find Brian, an altar server, on the ground with two thieves over him, one with his foot on Brian’s face. Father Khánh yelled and sprang into action, causing one robber to flee and tackling the other. The two men wrestled to the ground before the robber dropped the boy’s possessions and escaped.
A dozen or so bystanders watched in disbelief. He asked them why they did not defend the boy, and they said that they were afraid that the robbers might return and take revenge.
After hearing the story, the pastor said, “We are lucky that I did not have to do a funeral for you.” Another priest in the region recently had fought with a robber and was stabbed.
Father Khánh knows that had the second attacker not fled, he might not have survived.
“God saved me,” he said. “After that, I wasn’t afraid of anything.” Then, he laughed as he remembered the villagers’ theory. “They said, “The robbers thought you were Chinese, and the Chinese are good at Kungfu.”
Father Khánh admits that when he was a teenager and learned that he was being sent to the United States, he hesitated.
“When I look back 12 or 13 years ago, I never would have thought that I would study philosophy in the United States or that I would go to Ecuador for my CTP experience,” he said.
Certainty did not come immediately. “When I was here in the United States, my vocation was very flat,” he said. “I gradually came to understand more about my vocation.”
His time in Ecuador made his vocation clear. Father Jorge, the Divine Word priest with whom he worked in Ventanas, asked him to go to be with the people of a small village called Cauje. The village lay in a remote part of the country, so a layman who worked in the parish, gave Father Khánh a ride on his motorbike.
They arrived in “the middle of nowhere,” where houses perch near open fields of cocoa and corn and neighbors are a five-minute walk away.
“That experience really changed my vocation journey,” he said as he fondly remembered the family of five with whom he stayed. “When I first got inside the house, I realized that there were only two beds. They gave me their bed, and the entire family slept in the other. I felt so guilty that I couldn’t sleep.”
He thought about calling the pastor for permission to return to the parish, but then he reconsidered. “They are very poor, but they give you the best that they have,” he said. “If I returned to the parish, it would have been like I didn’t accept their generosity, so I changed my mind and stayed.”
Despite not having a functioning bathroom or an abundance of food, they gave him everything that they have, he said. Every night after the evening meal, they would walk to the area chapel, using a lantern or moonlight to illuminate their way. At the chapel, they celebrated the Liturgy of the Word and spontaneously shared stories.
The parting after only a week was an emotional one for Father Khánh. “I could not have imagined that my path as a guy from Vietnam would cross their path.” They left him with encouraging words.
“God has everything in store for you,” he said. “Things that you do not expect.”
From October until March, Father Khánh served as a transitional deacon at St. Benedict parish in Blue Island, a southern suburb of Chicago. He also completed his studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Father Khánh, who professed vows with the Society of the Divine Word in 2014, has been assigned to return to Ecuador when the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, he and his newly ordained confreres will serve the retired members of the Society of the Divine Word and the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters.
“When you go on your mission, God goes with you, accompanying you,” he said. “Don’t be afraid because you don’t know what God has in store for you.”