Theodore Vu Nguyen finds God's presence in missionary work

Nguyen,_Ted_2016_news_websiteBy Theresa Carson

On Aug. 6, nine young men professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at Techny, Ill., and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Carl Gales, Theodore Nguyen, Hoc Mai, Luke Henkel, Luis Panuco-Carmona, Hai Pham and Jorge Zetino. Three of them have chosen the path of the brotherhood and will pursue higher education in the fall. The remaining six will enroll at Catholic Theological Union as seminarians preparing for the priesthood.

Theodore Vu Nguyen’s confirmation was not what he expected. The youngest of nine children and one of many cousins, he envisioned being surrounded by family and feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit descend upon him.

After all, that’s how cousins who were a couple years older had described the experience. Instead, specks of dirt from his high school’s long jump pit clung to him; his twin brother, who also was being confirmed, was the only sibling present; and they ate at Denny’s afterwards.

"I was at track and field practice when my mom came running down the track," recalled 25-year-old Theodore, also known as Ted. "She said, ‘Ted, we have to go. You have to get confirmed right now.’"

The desire to feel the physical presence of God stayed with him.

Born in Orange County, Calif., Ted and his twin brother grew up on a farm northeast of San Diego. They are five years younger than their nearest sibling in age and about 20 years younger than the oldest. Of the nine siblings, they are the only ones who were born in the United States. One sister was born in the Philippines, and all the rest in Vietnam.

Even though they all have the same parents, the age difference between the older siblings and the twins made it almost seem like two separate family experiences. The older siblings helped to farm the land and grow mint leaves that the family sells to Asian supermarkets and restaurants.

"Being the youngest, I grew up spoiled, naturally with so many siblings taking care of me," Ted said. "Responsibilities were slim. I did my own laundry. I and my twin had to do mediocre work and never a lot while my [other] brothers and sisters worked on the farm from after school until 7 p.m. when they began their homework."

Like their older siblings, the twins were expected to get good grades, yet they were the first to earn Cs, Ds and even an F. "We learned from mistakes rather than growing up in a hard situation, having to get things done," Ted said.

The twins grew up in a small, tight knit community so youthful missteps couldn’t go far. Through eighth grade, they had classes with the same 15 classmates. When Ted left for college, his world expanded exponentially.

At the University of California-Riverside, he majored in economics and remained active in spiritual matters through extracurricular activities. During his freshman year, he became acquainted with a Protestant missionary group.

"They were one of the first groups that approached me," he said. "They had a lot of questions about Catholicism."

He enjoyed the different style of worship and prayer. They often prayed out loud and together. As many as 500 students from the University of California system would gather to pray. Ted said he was encouraged by the willingness of that many young people to gather in prayer.

"My friends helped me develop my prayer life," he said.

The group also gave him a chance to evangelize in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and China. Through those trips, he began to feel the presence that he had been longing to experience.

In order to go to Vietnam, Ted had to raise $3,500 for the trip. Fundraising was a challenge, and three days before the trip, he was still $800 short. His siblings got together and each gave $100 to make up the difference.

He also recalled his father’s response when he left on his first trip abroad. "My dad is not a physical, typical American dad, but he worried about me leaving. He gave me a hug; for the first time I realized that my dad gave me a hug."

At the airport, he experienced another memorable event. He approached the kiosk and swiped his passport. No information appeared. None of the 300 missionaries could pull up an airline ticket. Allegedly the travel agent took off with the money. They gathered in a small room and prayed, asking for God’s grace.

Somehow, the minister managed to raise $2 million to cover all of them. At the last minute, the missionary organization headquarters dipped into their reserves and bought hundreds of plane tickets.

"For the first time, I felt the Holy Spirit’s presence in answering prayers when I desperately needed him," Ted said.

God’s work continued. Ted’s final mission trip with the Protestant organization also left a lasting impression. He traveled to China a few days after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Since the group openly preached the Gospel, they were instructed to take special precautions so as not to be sent out of the country. Meet in outdoor spaces. Be aware of the surroundings. If stopped by authorities, break the SIM card in the cell phone so as not to compromise others in the missionary organization.

As it happened, Ted met a Chinese student whom he thought might be open to learning about Christ. Over the course of two weeks, they got to know each other while playing basketball. As Ted’s time in China wound down, the student wanted to meet in a local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.

Ted was hesitant. He had been advised to meet in parks and outdoor areas so as not to be overheard by other people. At the fast food restaurant, he tried to gather courage to talk about the Bible.
"I was really scared," he said. "I didn’t bring up the subject. We got ready to go, and then a huge storm hit. We had to stay inside a little longer."

Just then a Christian song in English began to play on the radio. "If this isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is," Ted said. "I shared Christ with him. He was interested and ultimately continued to go to church. For the first time, I felt like God was urging me to do something. I was free to say yes or no."

Ted continues to say yes. After 18 months and a promotion at a growing marketing firm, he still felt the call to evangelize. In 2014, he enrolled at Divine Word College and in 2015 he entered the Society of the Divine Word’s novitiate.

"The more that I learn about the Divine Word Missionaries through talking with confreres, the more I like the Divine Word spirit and mindset that they have towards people and the Church—reaching out to people," he said.

This fall, Ted will begin studies at Catholic Theological Union and live at Divine Word Theologate in Chicago.

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