The Apostolate of the Laity

Waxing philosophical in communion with one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

I am just a sinner who holds fast to the notion that every human being on the planet is the result of a thought of God.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Pearl of China Town

Vietnam has been described as the Pearl of the Orient. This S-shaped country about the size of New Mexico is home to some of the most beautiful rain forests, flowers, and beaches anywhere in the world. Even more, the people of Vietnam have an indomitable spirit and while nearly 80% of her 85-million inhabitants profess no religion, the spirit of Christ can often be seen in their loving nature and strong family values. All of this despite a history of being conquered and dominated by a variety of its neighbors and for awhile even the French.

Today, it is a communist state. After the United States lost its political will in the early 1970s to continue to support the South Vietnamese government, the North quickly moved in and united the country under an oppressive regime. Most of the violations of human dignity are forgotten today, though they still continue. Since America has divested herself from the region, Vietnam has become little more than a political punchline in this country's stream of consciousness.

About twenty years ago, a young medical school student named Lan decided that she and her husband and two children needed to flee the only home they ever knew. Somehow they had fallen out of favor with the local communist government for reasons to this day she is still unsure of. Survival of her family seemed more certain by moving to the United States versus staying home. Since they did not have the money for all four to leave at once, she and her husband decided that she and her daughter would go first with her husband and son to follow later.

Escaping by sea was the least risky way. Thailand was the safe harbor. From there one could arrange passage to the United States. Cutting across Laos or Cambodia proved far too dangerous when one weighed the threat of corrupt police, soldiers, and drug runners. So Lan and her toddler daughter joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of souls who have fled the beauty of their homeland now corrupted by the stain of totalitarianism.

When asked about her family, Lan will say, "I not very lucky." For while she and her daughter did make it to the United States, her husband and son did not. Details are sketchy at best, but what is known is that the other half of her family perished at sea. Some relatives told her that they were killed by the Vietnamese Navy. Others said that there wasn't enough food or water on the boat and that they had starved to death. Neither provides a comforting mental picture of a loved one dying in the South China Sea. This was not a peaceful death.

That was twenty years ago.

Today, Lan owns a beauty salon in Portland's China Town District. This area is the skid row of the City of Roses. The homeless, addicted, and the abandoned mentally ill filter in and out of this section also called Old Town. Two large entities, the local natural gas utility and the Oregon Department of Transportation, maintain a couple of large office buildings which keeps the area from falling into total dilapidation. For the most part, the employees and homeless have struck up a peaceful coexistence. The employees own the day while the street people own the night.

Lan's salon is right across the street from the gas company on Northwest Second Avenue. Every day a few customers from the utility cross the street and are greeted by Lan's warm smile and her patented, "Hello, handsome man!" One sits in a barber chair staring into a mirror bordered by snapshots, mostly of her beautiful daughter, and then is treated to a good haircut and even better company. Lan has an infectiously good spirit and always has a smile on her face, laughter in her voice, and sage advice if one asks.

Recently, the photos on her mirror include a picture of her and the Mayor of the City of Portland at a dinner honoring her for her contribution to China Town's community. In addition to clipping the hair of gas company employees, Lan opens her business and her heart to the homeless. Each night, two or three homeless sleep in the doorway leading to her salon. Instead of shewing them away in the morning when she comes to work, she greets and welcomes them. She talks to them as equals and lets them use her place to clean up a little before they make their way into the world.

If a poor person has a job interview, Lan offers them a free haircut so they can make a good impression. She laughs as she says,

"It just good business. I cut hair so they get job, then they come back and be my customer."

A few months ago, Lan closed her shop for the day so she could attend the graduation ceremony of one of her homeless customers she talked into going into drug rehab. This wasn't the first person she has helped this way.

"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'
Mathew 25:31-36

This little Vietnamese saint practices no formal religion, and yet it's hard to imagine Christ being anything but pleased with her. She evangelizes the Gospel more than most by how she lives her simple life. And while this author, and frequent customer of Lan, prays for her conversion, at the same time he is painfully aware that the charity she extends to the homeless of China Town far exceeds his pitiful occasional reluctant gift of spare change to a panhandler or a quick drive by drop-off of surplus clothing at a supermarket Salvation Army station. In this respect, Lan lives the gospel this writer professes but in practice he only conveniently dabbles in.

The great Pearl of the Orient released one of her children to the world where she drifted until she found her home among a culture where her beauty would shine the brightest. Lan is the Pearl of China Town.


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