After completing our educational charity work in Dien Bien Phu Province, we have journeyed to the city of Binh Duong. We are in B's car and he is driving us on a tour of this growing city. We slowly circle the down town area and see this magnificent church of red brick and white trim sitting on a slight hill to our right, I must stop and go inside. As usual I will say some prayers and offer a contribution.
So B parks his car, and Brother Doan and I get out to walk along the side of the church. Here we meet a slight-built short gardener watering the immaculately sited green trees and grass.
"Can we go inside?' I ask. Doan translates.
The gardener nods and motions us to go around the other side of the building. We walk around as I take photos of various statues including a huge wall presentation of St Joseph holding up the Baby. This is my name sake and I already as "a Joseph" feel part of this congregation and this church which is named St. Joseph.
I hobble up the church stairs, pause at the top-rejoicing as a climber conquers Mount Everest, and enter. What a beautiful interior with lots of marble tile and polished stone surfaces. So much light from God's sun floods through the high windows. The Church overseer comes out from an office in back and greets us. "We are from America," we explain, "We want to offer some prayers and give a donation."
He runs off to get us some envelopes for our donations. I place the money inside each. One envelope is for lighting candles, requesting God's grant of our demand. (Notice we always are "requesting," and rarely are "thanking.") The second larger envelope is for a general offering for the Church.
"Doan," I wonder, "Are we giving enough?"
"Don't worry," he replies. "They are grateful for anything." Doan is very practical.
The overseer points to a donation box for the candles and personal requests. The other site for the main offering will be up above on the very large main altar stone.
I carry my larger white envelope onto the main church area. I place it on the altar, then back away a few steps, join my hands, and pray. I remember all the veterans who have died here on all sides of the wars, and then Margaret Wong's father and her recently deceased mother. I pray for all our families and all who have departed this planet. I remember our veterans with whom I served, especially Roger who definitively proclaims his seventy-five years of wisdom that "most probably there is no God, but we should still behave." Finally I recall our recently-deceased Judge Raymond Pianka who has helped our Friendship Foundation and our planned Vietnamese cultural garden on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in so many ways. We will miss this great, compassionate, and learned Cleveland Municipal Judge who worked so hard at preserving and upgrading Cleveland's housing. Gia Hoa has a plan for a special educational memorial for him in the T'ai people's highlands near Dien Bien Phu.
After my prayers, I turn toward the back of the church and notice there is a double kneeler in the main aisle with silk and pink cloth decorations. There are large colorful bouquets of fresh flowers on the wooden heads of the nearby pews, marking the reserved seating for close family. Of course, this looks like a wedding.
"We have a wedding at ten o'clock," explains the overseer. "That will be in an hour and the church will be filled with people to witness the happy couple make their vows." (I begin to hope that I will be called upon to give my Cana Wedding Sermon.)
We 'shoot' our obligatory photos with the overseer and then leave through the side door we had entered. Already outside we can see the people gathering, men wearing their best suits and ladies in their long colorful flowing 'ao dai's'. (Google the word "ao dai" if you do not recognize it.)
We walk slowly down the stairs. I measure each step so I do not crumble and fall, ruining the wedding with my funeral. We see three priests coming out of the side building, a fourth follows. Of course, we introduce ourselves.
"Chao, cac Cha," I state, "B?n kho? không?" ("Good Morning Fathers, how are you?")
"Khoe lam, where are you from?" One asks.
I explain, "We come from America, and stopped to pray at the church."
"You're welcome," he states in excellent English. He then introduces us to the others. Of course, not wanting to miss a business opportunity, I pull out my ready stack of business cards.
"I am a lawyer, 'Luat su,' in America," I declare. "Here is my business card," as I pass them out. "My name is Joseph Meissner and I notice the church is named for my patron saint."
"Yes," says the priest, "we are St. Joseph Parish. We have a wedding today." The six of us are then joined by the bride's family, the Mother in her beautiful ao dai and the Father in a well-tailored, perfectly fitting suit.
"My name is 'Thomas,'" says the man, reaching out to shake my hand. "Father," he says directly to me, "It is good to meet you."
What should I do? Correct him that I am just a lowly attorney? Or just accept this new calling. I decide to be quiet.
"Congratulations," I tell the parents. Then I say to the mother, "Mot cham nam hanh phuc," which exactly means, "May the couple enjoy one hundred years of happiness." The "one hundred years" in the Vietnamese tradition really means "forever."
She smiles and says, "Com on, cha," or "Thank you, Father."
I then give my own blessing for the new couple, "Có th? h? có sáu chàng trai và cô gái sáu." That means "May the happy couple enjoy twelve children, six girls and six boys."
"Thank you, Father Joseph," says her husband, taking my name "Joseph" from my business card.
We then of course line up for a group wedding photo with all other priests, myself, and the bride's parents. Doan does the camera work. We must depart. But we leave them with the "Mot cham nam hanh phuc" and a "Chung toi hen gap lai." We shall return.
There will be more weddings on this mission. For one of the weddings, we know the young couple who have been engaged for over a year. She comes from a Vietnamese family who resettled twenty years ago in Cleveland. He has grown up in this Vietnam border province all his life. I get a special opportunity to talk with each one separately.
"He is a very hard working man," she shares with me, "and we are truly in love. He helps also very diligently as a volunteer at the Catholic Church, near where our families live.
The young man tells me, "I volunteer at the Church and have worked with the priest for five years. He loves me very much. I so much enjoy helping the young people there." Then he apologizes (since he has grown up speaking mainly Vietnamese here), "Do you understand my English? I have so much difficulty picking out the right word but I try."
"Your English is wonderful," I respond. Then changing the subject, I inquire, "How did you decide to marry her?"
"I love her very much," he haltingly but firmly states, "I asked Jesus if I should marry her. I am looking for Jesus in my soul to answer. Every day I pray. I hope Jesus will help us both make the right decision." I think in my mind, "What a good couple. May Jesus bless them always."
The Wedding Mass is at the large white Church just next to the river. I have visited here many times over the past twenty years. Now I am one of the wedding party. It is a beautiful warm Saturday morning with rays of the sun embracing us all. Our Director Gia Hoa Ryan-head of this family-lines everyone up properly at the Church vestibule and we march solemnly into the Church, find our place in the pews, and then clap as the wedding couple slowly but confidently strides down the aisle. Two little ones are carrying the bride's beautiful dress train.
Gia Hoa and I have been asked to help at the ceremony. The bride will be making her Confirmation as well as entering the sacrament of matrimony. We step forward as the priest motions for us to come to the altar. We are the confirmation witnesses. Of course, confirmation is meant to call each of us in a special way to defend the Faith and become dedicated soldiers to witness Christ to the world. So I do get some opportunity to honor my priestly calling.
More opportunities came at the next wedding we attended. We begin our journey early Saturday morning. Our driver takes eight of us in our bus down the town's main road, then over a one-lane paved road, next turns off down a hilly dirt and gravel road, around a sharp turn onto a hard mud pack trail, finally along a path filled with holes with rice paddies on both sides of us, and the jungle closing in on us. I hug the door and overhead straps, fearing we shall fall off the narrow path into the paddies several feet below us, But our Vietnamese driver knows exactly how to steer and maneuver our bus safely to our goal. We are driving toward the Cambodian border, and the darkness of high thick jungle that closes up behind us we plunge onward. I half expect John Kerry to come by in his swift boat.
"Where are we?" I wonder but dare not ask. We are all wearing our Vietnamese Sunday best. The ladies are dressed in beautiful tight-bodiced ao dai's with all sorts of colorful designs, birds, and flowers on the front panels. I am wearing a long elegant blue robe which comes gracefully down to my knees. This feels like a priest's cassock. It is a typical Vietnamese best fashion for males at weddings.
The car stops. It can go no further. Ahead are trees and no more dirt. To our right is a long trail, with both sides adorned in flower garlands and blue, red, white, and yellow balloon clusters decked from green ivy. We follow this charming pathway back into the tropical forest to a large flat roofed house sited on raised hill. Music pours from the house, live music of a real band, gay and inviting music. We can hear the voices, people laughing and relishing a delightful occasion. I can mark out children's voices as well, screams of pleasure and fun.
Yes, this is the wedding site. This is the house of the wife's family and all around are huge tents to shield the guests from the hot morning sun. Tomorrow there will be a second day of celebration at the house of the husband's family when the bride officially joins her new family. We walk along the ornamented footpath and there ahead of us stands the happy couple surrounded by huge color photographs of themselves at the central entrance. Opposite them is the long table covered with white stain and silk, where we sign the big wedding book.
The bride wears a most beautiful long white traditional gown and her husband wears a white tuxedo with fashionable black shoes. They smile and greet us a welcome. Beside the bride is her father. He is crumpled up, squatting on a metal three wheel bike which has been especially welded and formed for his pretzel shaped limbs. He smiles at us for this most joyful moment of his gorgeous daughter's life.
I heard about his story before in the bus. Struck down by polio as child, he has fought all his life to be self-sufficient and earn a living to support his wife and three children.
"How did he ever have children?" somebody had asked on the bus in a voice that he did not have to hear. He has supported them by raising fish and selling the fruits and vegetables from his garden. He is a living example that if somebody tries to achieve, despite the challenges and handicaps God has bestowed, they can succeed.
For me and for the two hundred other guests under the huge wedding tents, this is a great lesson that humbles the most haughty among us.
So we shake hands, give the "mot cham nam hanh phuc" greetings for a "hundred years of happiness" for the couple, and look for empty spaces at the crowded tables. It will be a morning of sticky white rice and boiled chicken, pork slices from a whole roasted pig, many green leafed vegetables, fresh fruits, and shark-fin soup, and later the wedding cake sliced into huge chunks for all the guests.
"Bac Hai," I am dared by one of the male relatives, "do you want a beer?"
"Of course," I respond.
Then the special stuff comes out, pale golden white liquid in large coke bottles. One pours a thimble full of the precious strong drink, and holds it out to me as a test of my manhood. All at the table watch for my reaction. Can the American take it?
"Nam muoi von cham," I state. That means I will drink fifty percent of the glass of the potent homemade concoction.
Later, when more thimbles are offered to each at the table, I will have to increase my effort to "mot cham von cham," which means bottoms up and then you must prove by tilting over the glass in your palm and showing no remaining drips of liquid.
Then we are called up later to the center by the band where we must prove we can dance despite our mounting dizziness in our brains and the giddiness in our voices. What a setting here, near the jungle borders, for a stately and blissful wedding. Naturally the couple comes to every table, partly to pose for a photo with all at the table and also to receive special greetings.
Naturally, I voice my blessings to them and admonish them, "A marriage is not a "fifty-fifty proposition; both of you must give one hundred percent all the time."
Then I add, "I cannot promise you happiness. I can guarantee you will experience some hard times. But remember at those times, call on the Mother of Jesus. Mary will never disappoint, but always will help, including calling on her Son like at the wedding feast at Cana." Again I felt like "a Father Joseph" in my blue cassock.
So, my dear readers, when you see me from now on, just whisper quietly, "Hello, Father Joseph." You will make me very happy.
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