“The poor you will always have with you…” (John 12:8)
The above biblical passage is perhaps known to all of us. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus together with his disciples were at the table with their friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. As usual, Martha busied herself with serving the guest, while Mary dedicated her time to wash the feet of Jesus. However, Mary did more than that. It says in John’s Gospel that she anointed Jesus’ feet with a costly perfumed oil and then dried them with her own hair. Judas, who will sell his master for thirty shekels, rebuked her for wasting so much resources on Jesus. In his reply, Jesus said that the poor will always be with them. Since Jesus identified himself with the poor, Mary’s action was a deed that serves actually the poor.
Imitating Mary, my brother Fr Joseph Luong, who is parish priest in Haugesund, Norway, and who just celebrated his 25th anniversary of priesthood, and I have travelled regularly to Asia to visit the poor. In 2019, I spent two weeks of my annual leave of four weeks in Asia.
The care for the poor, particularly for the lepers and orphans, is one way to give thanks to God for his many blessings. The greatest blessing is the priesthood that we were gifted with. Since 1994, we have both made our way to Asia to assist the marginalised spiritually and economically.
Departing from Sydney on 5 August, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the morning of 6 August. After a short night’s rest, at 4am, my friends and I loaded our truck that we had hired from a good friend with the necessary goods and medicines and journeyed to Ba Me Thuat, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Qui Nhon. These regions have the highest population of ethnic people who – as you may imagine – are ignored and deprived of rights. They are the poorest of the poor.
In the eyes of many, they are the outcasts. They live under very primitive conditions: no running water, no electricity, no medical assistance and no means to make a living. Their daily food consists of what the forest would provide. In rainy season, they would be without food for days. There is a huge problem. Due to huge scale of deforestation, they are even deprived of land on which they could make a living. Most of them have a life expectancy of around 35 years.
Young girls became mothers between the ages of 12 and 14. Some will be sold as sex slaves or as child labourers. Because of the pressure, the rate of suicide among young girls is very high. According to their tradition, children must die with their mothers who died at childbirth. Many children also would have been aborted. I have witnessed a child being fastened between the legs of a dying mother! It was only through a miracle that we could convince the tribal council to let the child to live. The child is now married and is a medical doctor.
Our mission is to save these “unfortunate” children and to provide them with spiritual and material care. Sometimes, it requires great sacrifices and personal endurance. I am grateful to the many nuns who were willing to accept and to give them a “new” home. Some religious have even decided to live among the lepers in order to give full witness to Christ’s preferential option of the poor.
The other curse is the high rate of leprosy among these ethnicities. While the decease can be treated by medicines, the high scale of corruption and bureaucracy hinder the healing process of the lepers. Often, they are left to a “natural” death that is seen as a “normal” way of cure of leprosy.
Our responsibility is then to search for the orphans, the widows and lepers as they often migrate between borders as they are displaced people unrecognised by governments.
Over 20 years, we have created a network called the “friends of lepers”. Besides our prayers for the poor, we distributed to each person or family of the poor the following items: medicines and medical aid kit; 1 kilo dried fish; 1 kilo pork meat (or 10 eggs); 1 pack of soap; clothes; 1 bottle of fish sauce; 1 bottle of oil; 1 kilo salt and sugar; 1 carton of instant noodle; 10 kilos rice. This year we were able to visit 300 families.
It is quite a logistical effort to bring all these material aid to those in needs. Without the helping hands of many, we could not do God’s work.
On behalf of the needy, I just want to say, thanks to God and to you for your prayers and assistance. Please know that the poor also want to repay you for your kindness and generosity with their prayers.
I am already looking forward to 2020 to my next visit to my friends, the orphans, widows and the lepers.
Fr Joseph Lam is the assistant priest at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Greystanes.