New Australian Jesuit Provincial Fr Quyen Vu shares his journeys as a missionary and some of the important lessons he’s learned along the way.
My first missionary journey took me to Timor-Leste. The Timorese lost many lives and their country was destroyed as they struggled for their independence from Indonesia, their coloniser since 1975.
I first arrived in Timor-Leste in 2001 as a scholastic responding to a request from the Jesuits in the Asia-Pacific Conference. I could not believe what I was seeing when I stepped onto the soil of Timor-Leste for the first time. As I was being driven from the airport in Dili to our Jesuit residence in Taibesi, I saw hundreds of houses burnt to the ground. Only the residence of the bishop still stood.
Reaching the Jesuit residence in Taibesi, I was taken to the garden to visit the graves of two Jesuits killed during the 1999 crisis: Fr Karl Albrecht SJ and Fr Tarcisius Dewanto SJ, who were killed on the 6th and 11th of September respectively.
Questions came through my mind at the time. What am I doing here? What can I contribute here? What contribution can I make? Where is God while the Timorese are suffering and their country destroyed?
Learning a new language, culture and tradition were not so easy, and adapting to their culture required time and patience. After three months in Timor-Leste, the ‘honeymoon period’ began to wear off and reality began to set in. I was a foreigner in a foreign land, and I had difficulty communicating with the local people, let alone being able to contribute to the education ministry which they so desperately needed to develop after their struggle for independence.
I realised then that being a missionary was not about baptising or catechising people like St Francis Xavier did a few hundred years earlier. It was about being with them, listening to them, understanding their struggles, suffering and pain as well as their hopes for a bright future. It took me six years to be able to begin to understand their language, music, dance, cultures, rituals, values, hopes and dreams as well as why they fought so hard for their independence.
Another place, another culture
My second missionary journey took me to Cambodia. I was invited to Cambodia to assist in the setting up of the first Jesuit school there. I arrived in January 2015 and had to learn a new language, culture and tradition all over again. My experience of Timor-Leste allowed me to adapt to a new culture with a bit more ease, however the Khmer language and alphabet were challenging. Also, Timor-Leste was over 90% Catholic, whereas Cambodia was over 90% Buddhist.
I felt like a child having to learn the alphabet and vowels of a new language, as well as a new culture and new traditions in a new place. After a few months struggling to get a grasp of the Khmer language, questions came rushing into my head again: Why am I here? What can I contribute here? How am I going to help in the construction of a new Jesuit school when I cannot communicate with people?
Not being able to communicate and relate to the local people, especially the students, was causing me anxiety, stress and irritation. I had to rely on the local people to show me how to do things in their own context and culture. I must admit it is frightening to find oneself in a situation where you are not in control and require other people’s help, rather than being able to help other people.
I believe many new missionaries and volunteers also go through this phase when they come to an undeveloped country to assist. For some it may take one year and for others it may take up to two or three to overcome this challenging period.
A former Provincial once asked me before I left for my missionary journey how patient I was. He went on to remind me that I will need a lot of patience to work in a new country as a missionary.
For me, it was patience and the constant reminder of why I came here in the first place that helped me overcome this phase of doubt. Once we can break through this stressful period, we can begin our true mission.
A new mission
Now I have been asked to return to Australia to take on a new leadership role after 14 years overseas. I feel like I’m starting my third missionary journey.
Many things have changed over the last 14 years and I will have to learn new things and new ways of doing things all over again. I feel anxious and scared at the same time because I need to re-adapt myself to the Australian context and culture.
What are the essential aspects of being a missionary? What have I learned from my time in Timor-Leste and Cambodia?
I have learnt a few important lessons that have helped me achieved my goals in both countries:
(i) Prayer is essential in the life of a missionary. Trusting in God and placing oneself in God’s hands is important. Sometimes what I planned is one thing, but God’s plan may be something else.
(ii) A spiritual life gives me strength and courage to face all the obstacles and challenges throughout my daily activity and ministry. We do need a good spiritual life.
(iii) Striking a balance between work and relaxation. Do not get too stressed out. I have learnt to set certain priorities and try as best I can to achieve them.
(iv) Collaboration and teamwork will enable us to achieve our mission and goals. Working and collaborating with others will allow us to better achieve our vision and mission. I cannot do it alone and I need others to achieve goals.
(v) Trusting in the local staff and teachers. To walk together with them side by side rather than in front or behind them. To walk in front we must pull them along and after a while we will get tired. To push from behind we will also eventually get tired. However, if we walk side-by-side, we can move forward together and we will move further and not get tired so easily.
My third journey has begun, and it will take me quite some time to get used to it as 14 years is quite a long time to be away. I am certain that my Jesuit companions as well as our lay partners will be there to help me adjust and provide a helping hand whenever I need it.
There will be new possibilities and many opportunities, so I do look forward to this third journey.
Please spare a prayer or two for me as I embark on this new journey.
Fr Quyen Vu SJ
Image: Fr Quyen in Cambodia in 2018.