In November 1991, two colleagues and I spent two weeks in Vietnam negotiating with various authorities to be allowed either to import Bibles into the country or print them there. At that time, Bibles were not available except through smuggling, an activity we refused to support. Our host and liaison person in Hanoi was a Roman Catholic layman. During the war he had been Ho Chi Minh’s aide-de-camp, though he was a French-trained lawyer. After the war, he had served as the country’s Minister of Justice.
On Sunday, he took us to the 6 a.m. Mass at the cathedral. Services were from 5 a.m. every hour until noon. We went at 6 a.m. because he said it wouldn’t be so crowded. I don’t know what the later services were like because even at 6 a.m. the cathedral was packed with people filling the aisles and leaning and sitting in the open windows. (Actually, there was no glass.)
Our host quietly translated for us. When it came to the scripture readings, I realized with a start that they were following the same lectionary as my church in New Jersey.
I thought about all the things we called the Vietnamese during the war - Charley, Gooks, Slant Eyes. Through the windows, I could see huge piles of rubble from our bombings.
I wondered what the Vietnamese had called us. And yet, here we were, reading the same biblical passages, praying similar prayers, sharing a common faith.
That day changed me. I don’t think I had ever understood what being united in the spirit really meant. Intellectually perhaps I had, but emotionally? Deep in my soul? Never before.
When I start to objectify some other group or when I find myself wanting to be exclusionary, I think back to that morning in Hanoi. Those people whom I may not like, whom I may disagree with radically, whom I don’t want to associate with, they are nevertheless my brothers and sisters at some level.
It makes hate or prejudice pretty hard to maintain.
Oh, a P.S. – we received permission to print 100,000 Bibles a year in Vietnam. Pretty good trip.