The Deacon's Bench

From the Detroit Free Press comes this inspiring story about a hardy band of survivors — thousands of Vietnamese immigrants who settled in New Orleans, and have endured extraordinary trials with extraordinary faith:

On the far eastern edge of New Orleans, a community of 10,000 Vietnamese-Americans already had weathered disasters of biblical proportions — war, hate crimes, Hurricane Katrina and a mountain of toxic waste — when, this summer, BP oil hit their commercial fishing boats. Anyone’s faith in God and America might have been crippled by that Job-like toll.

But these thousands of devout Catholics confidently are surviving it all with an undimmed faith and patriotism.

“As a community, we have depended for a century on fishing for our livelihood, so the oil is disastrous for us, yes. It’s true that the oil is in these waters and on our boats, and the price of seafood down here on the docks has collapsed. Yes, all that’s true. But this is America, we have each other in this community and we have systems in America that can help us survive if we work hard,” said Giupseppe Tony Tran, assistant to the pastors at the huge local Vietnamese-Catholic church, Mary Queen of Vietnam.

In our journey of 9,000 miles around the U.S., we’ve met countless people worried about their future, so we were stunned by Tran’s matter-of-fact confidence. At the moment, he’s also working with local shrimp fishermen on strategies to increase seafood sales. This is a tightly knit community and everyone gets involved in a crisis.

When the 2005 Hurricane Katrina destroyed the heart of their community — their church — local Catholics scrambled to adapt. They evacuated with everyone else, but very quickly they were back canoeing to their partially submerged homes. Their church was all but gone, but they were able to canoe to a big outdoor platform in the church parking lot high enough that it remained dry. The first parishioners gathered there. Then, as their parking lot eventually dried out, they cleared mud and debris, gathered scrap steel and aluminum, plus their welding and metal-working tools and built a huge barn for Mass. Finally, they rebuilt their church.

This was one of the first areas in the entire city to jump back from the storm.

“You have to remember, we survived the Vietnam War. We survived Katrina. Nothing stops us if we keep our faith and work hard,” Tran said.

Those three words “faith” and “work hard” form a mantra one hears throughout this industrious ethnic community. In fact, visiting the Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans is like stepping back a century to visit classic immigrant communities such as Poletown in Detroit, German communities in the Great Plains or Scandinavians in the upper Midwest.

There is much more. Read it all. And be in awe.

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