Fleeing religious persecution to become an American bishop – World Refugee Day 2018

Bishop Nguyen religious persecution

Orange County, California  – Honoring a refugee who fled religious persecution to become a bishop in America and a model of faith to his community.

Just imagine. You’re facing religious persecution and there is only one way out. You pile your extended family – some 26 in all – into a motorboat and shove off into the vast ocean with only meager supplies. You leave your longtime home in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and head into the South China Sea in hopes of making it to the Philippines, to safety and to a place where you are free to practice your Catholic faith. By plane it would take more than 6 hours to reach Manila. Google Maps doesn’t offer an estimate for traveling by a 28-foot motorboat. Especially when the motor fails.

Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen, the Diocese of Orange’s auxiliary bishop, knows it takes 18 days. He was on that boat. For more than two weeks, his family was tossed about in the sea, endured tropical storms, and went days without food and water. They prayed the rosary morning and night.
“The communist took over the entire country in April of 1975,” Bishop Nguyen said. “Searching for freedom, my family and I escaped  Vietnam by boat. It was a small wooden boat, 6 feet wide and 28 feet long.” Four days into the trip the unimaginable happened. “The boat’s motor stopped working so we threw it overboard to the open sea,” he said. “We experienced hunger and thirst. … We had enough water for one cup each. … By day 17 we were all exhausted.”

Finally, when they thought all was lost, they saw land in the distance. They had made it to the Philippines and were now refugees. After 10 months in a refugee camp, they were able to travel to the United States: Beaumont, Texas, to be exact. And life began again.

“Eighteen days on the sea, 10 days [with] nothing to eat and nothing to drink. But we were faithful to our evening and morning prayer – and of course the rosary included,” said Bishop Nguyen. “We believe that through the intercession our Blessed Mother we arrived safely – 26 of us – after 18 days. When I arrived I promised to do whatever the Lord wanted me to do. That’s why I entered the seminary to study to become a priest.”

Hearing Bishop Nguyen’s story from nearly 40 years ago, a story so many others from our Vietnamese community share, puts today’s migrant crisis in a new light. It’s often difficult to understand and empathize with so many who are today fleeing religious persecution and other forms of persecution, when the crisis is an ocean away. But to hear Bishop Nguyen’s story – his first-hand account of risking one’s life to be free – brings it closer to home.

The Diocese of Orange, and in particular the Vietnamese community within the diocese, welcomed Bishop Nguyen at his episcopal ordination on December 18, 2018. His story of surviving religious persecution, his faith and his example are models for us all.

Refugees shaking hands

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World Refugee Day 2018

This month, to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, US-born Americans across the United States honor newcomer Americans with a story from their state – a story of a refugee, asylee, or immigrant they admire. From soldiers to politicians, employers to students, social workers to business people – everyday Americans tell their stories to celebrate the goodness and courage of the newcomers who make the United States a better place. They will open new worlds for you.

Every day in the month of June, the Refugee Center Online will publish a new story from a different state. Check back for new stories each day: therefugeecenter.org/world-refugee-day.

Learn more about World Refugee Day. All across the country, there will be events celebrating World Refugee Day. Visit this map to find an event in your community.

About Kimberly Porrazzo
Kimberly Porrazzo is the editor of Orange County Catholic, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange.