Turning Toward Faith During Hurricane Aftermath

In the wake of the destruction brought on by Hurricane Katrina, many Gulf Coast residents sought support from their faith communities. Father Vien The Nguyen works in New Orleans East and advises those now suffering from Hurricane Irene's effects. He is a judicial vicar in the Catholic Church's Archdiocese of New Orleans. He speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now, we turn to Father Vien The Nguyen. He's a social activist best known for his work with the Vietnamese-American community of New Orleans, particularly the immigrant community. Six years ago, he headed Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. He was instrumental in helping people reclaim their lives in the eastern part of the city.

Now, he's working as a judicial vicar for the Catholic Church's Archdiocese of New Orleans. But he remains connected to his community as chair of the board of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, and he's with us now from his office in New Orleans. Father Vien The Nguyen, welcome.

VIEN THE NGUYEN: Thank you, Michel. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Do you still think about Hurricane Katrina?

NGUYEN: Periodically. Well, periodically but only in the sense of it being in the background of the things that we are still doing to continue the recovery as well as the development post-Katrina.

MARTIN: What are some of the challenges that remain, when you do think about it? What do you think about?

NGUYEN: Well, one of the things that we are still dealing with in the area where I was, as the pastor, and still working with the development work - but no longer as a pastor - is the issue of health care. There were three hospitals within a seven-mile radius of us prior to Katrina. There are still none. So we have created two clinics - one, pediatric; the other one, adult. And we are struggling to find funds to cover that. So that's one of the things that we are still doing. We're also working on job development for the people.

MARTIN: And I'm understanding that the BP oil spill has kind of overwhelmed the memories of Katrina, is that right?

NGUYEN: In many ways, yes, especially for the fishers because for them, the issue is still there. While they have fixed their homes - shall we say - fixed their boats, but the catch this year was really bad. One shrimper that I know personally, he set out the first week when the season opened and he caught, I believe, 90 pounds and the next week, he caught 130 pounds of shrimp. These are the largest shrimp. So we have to keep in mind that that's four people on the boat, and just the fuel costs alone was $1,500 per week. So for them, it's a tremendous struggle.

MARTIN: You know, for many - we talked about this earlier, that for many African-Americans, you know, New Orleans is an important cultural center. Certainly, it's a place that many people called home. You know, many generations of family called New Orleans home. And some people have left and have never come back. And that has really changed the relationships that many people have, you know, with their family, with what they view as their ancestral home.

Now of course, many people in the Vietnamese community have already been displaced, you know; they've already come from someplace else, made a life, and then faced this disruption again. Are there people who have left and never come back? Are there ways in which people's family lives have changed in a way that they did not want, didn't anticipate?

NGUYEN: You are speaking to one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NGUYEN: My mother and my brother and his wife all were living here since 1977. And post-Katrina, they have left and have not returned.

MARTIN: Where did they go, if you don't mind my asking?

NGUYEN: My...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NGUYEN: How ironic, my oldest brother and his family and my mom moved to - are all in Maryland right now.

MARTIN: Oh.

NGUYEN: So when I heard of the earthquake and Irene, I called them and invited them to come home. It's much safer down here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I think a lot of people would probably like to have taken you up on that offer.

NGUYEN: Yes.

MARTIN: How are they doing?

NGUYEN: I think they're doing fairly well. But still in many ways, they miss home because they've been here for - what - 1977 to 2005. That is probably one place that they have been the longest in all of their life.

MARTIN: And you miss being able to see them, you know, on a regular basis.

NGUYEN: Exactly, exactly.

MARTIN: And vice versa. Do you mind if I ask, as a faith leader, what message do you give people around events like this? And what message do you give yourself?

NGUYEN: For me as a faith leader, but especially a Christian faith leader, I always look at it from the perspective of the Paschal Mystery; that is, the death - suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. So through the suffering, there's a certain sense of loss, a certain sense of death, but there will be resurrection. Something will come out of this that is even better than before, and it's beyond our imagining. And that's the hope that pushes us on.

MARTIN: Do you think if you and I were to speak six years from now - and I hope we will - what do you think we'll be talking about? Do you think we'll still be talking about Katrina?

NGUYEN: I think we may talk about Katrina, but as a positive experience in the sense that we - from it, we'll rebuild something new, and that in the future when people undergo catastrophes, they would look back at Katrina and say: Look at Katrina; the people rebuilt, and it was a much better place. So the same can happen to us.

MARTIN: Father Vien The Nguyen is a judicial vicar in the Catholic Church's Archdiocese of New Orleans. He's also the chair of the Board of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation there. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

NGUYEN: Thank you, Michel. You take care.

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