By Theresa Carson
When Fred Friend attended a relative’s funeral at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Gassaway, W. Vir., he did not expect the effect that it would have on him.
When he parked in the church parking lot, Father Thien Duc Nguyen SVD, pastor of St. Thomas, raised his hand in greeting. To the 53-year-old Friend, the gesture looked like a blessing.
Friend, a long-haul truck driver, had been raised to distrust Catholics, but when he left the church that day, he felt changed. A sense of awe had come over him.
At a recent meeting at the church community center, Friend commented that having been in the military and working in his current profession, he swore like a truck driver. However, the encounter at St. Thomas rendered him unable to utter another curse word.
When the newfound state of grace continued, Friend asked a trusted friend, “What is this feeling?” His friend responded that he didn’t know but that Friend must return to that church. And he did.
By this time, Father Thien was visiting his family in Vietnam. Another priest was filling in for him. As soon as Friend walked in the door, a parishioner welcomed him. She then called over her husband, and before Friend could turn around, all the parishioners in the church surrounded him to greet him.
Friend waited another month to meet Father Thien. When the pastor returned, the 6-foot-1 Friend happened upon the 5-foot-2 priest at a gas station.
“I was filling up the food pantry truck when he approached me,” said Father Thien with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “I looked up and thought, ‘Uh-oh.’”
The priest was surprised when Friend introduced himself and said that he wanted to learn more about the Catholic faith. Together, they went to pick up the food for the poor at Mountaineer Food Bank that day.
“To help the poor, perhaps, that the first lesson that he learned about the Catholic faith” Father Thien said.
Today, Friend, his wife Kari and their granddaughter are taking RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) classes to become Catholic.
Remembering the day he went back to St. Thomas to look for Father Thien, Friend recalled thinking, “I’m home. Christ is standing here, looking at me and saying, ‘You’re home.’”