Divine Providence sisters, other Catholics reach out to ethnic villagers in remote Vietnam

Stieng ethnic villagers exchange tokens for food with Divine Providence sisters at the convent. (GSR photo)

Several Sisters of Divine Providence are working to sustain impoverished ethnic villagers in the Binh Phuoc Province, bordering Cambodia.

The province is home to some 41 ethnic minority groups, totaling about 185,000 people, or one-fifth of the Binh Phuoc population, according to the People's Public Security Newspaper. Most ethnic villagers live in poverty due to having no farmland or education.

Few villages have resident priests or churches, and the area is seen as open to evangelization.

Three Divine Providence sisters have been working with Stieng ethnic villagers in An Khuong Parish in the Hon Quan District since last August when they built a convent. The parish has 700 Catholics among the population of about 7,000.

Many villagers live on incomes of $31-44 per month and suffer starvation, according to 2016 government statistics.

The nuns cooperate with a group of local Catholic women and Fr. Joseph Nguyen Minh Chanh, who give pastoral care to An Khuong parishioners and help to feed ethnic villagers every week.

On Fridays, women prepare lunch at the neighboring parish house of Phu Luong, where Chanh is based, 6 miles (9.5 km) away from the convent. They put rice, meat and vegetables into small plastic containers before having a man carry them to the convent on a motorcycle.

A narrow path with potholes, connecting the convent and Phu Luong church, winds its way through rubber plantations and fields. In the burning sun, clouds of dust rise as a few vehicles run on the mostly empty path.

Mai, mother of four, carries 14 portions of meals for her family members as she walks home. (GSR photo)

Sr. Martha Nguyen Thi Nhan Tran, head of the convent, said the nuns and some local women visit villagers and sell them food tokens for 9 cents apiece. Each person buys one token for a full-size portion of food. One portion will feed an adult for one main meal or a child for two meals. The food is not enough for the whole week, and families scrape to augment it by other means.

Villagers gather at the convent and exchange tokens for food. Every week 300-500 portions are sold. Many villagers cannot afford to buy a full portion for each member of the household and instead may buy three portions to feed a family of five.

"My family lives on the nutritious food that we look forward to on Fridays. The food saves us from hunger," said De, 39, who is pale and thin and dressed in ragged clothes.

As she sat in the convent corridor, De, a mother of four, said she cultivates cashews on a 2,000-square-meter (2,400 square yards) farm that has yielded poor harvests due to drought and unseasonal rain. Her husband works away from home.

"We tiredly struggle for daily food and could not afford to send our children to school," De said.

Another woman called Mai, who also has four children, said she got 14 portions for her family members and relatives.

"Our meals only include rice and salt. We very often lack rice and eat vegetables and insects we catch from the fields. So the food here is good for our health," Mai said, as she carried food containers on her back and walked to her home.

A thin, elderly, barefoot man said many people catch field mice and small fish from streams and cook them over the fire for nutritious meals. Mice and fish are not as common as they were in the past, however, leading to food scarcity.

"The food helps satisfy our hunger. We thank God for sending the nuns to care for us," he said, pointing to the colorful food containers filled with rice, meat and soybean products.

A Khmer ethnic woman lives alone in Binh Phuoc Province. (GSR photo)

"Providing nourishing food for villagers aims to maintain their health," Tran said, adding that delivering food to the people on Fridays mirrors the Catholic effort to show divine mercy.

Benefactors make the weekly meals possible. "We could not afford to feed them more," Tran said.

The nuns and women collect the empty containers from the customers and wash them for the next time.

"We charge them 2,000 dong [9 cents], a very small sum, for each portion so that they can think they really buy it and will not feel embarrassed," Tran said. Such portions cost at least 15,000 dong each at local restaurants.

Tran said the food service is an opportunity for them to visit and build good relationships with local people. Ethnic villagers often attend weekly services held at the convent.

Sr. Lucia Le Thi Hanh, far right, the provincial superior of the Divine Providence Sisters in Can Tho, introduces the newly installed water purification system to visitors. (GSR photo)

Tran said the nuns also just installed a new water purification system, funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters to provide clean water for people.*

Asked if they fear living alone in a remote convent surrounded by rubber plantations and rice fields, she said, "We come here to serve people in need, ease their sufferings and bring them comfort to bear witness to the Good News. So we believe in divine providence and love, and villagers receive us as their members."

The nuns raise fish and grow vegetables in their convent's compound for their own food.

Dominican sisters from Dong Nai Province, just east of Ho Chi Minh City, reportedly plan to serve the Dong Tam mission station that has 500 Catholics. The area is home to Khmer ethnic people.

Sisters working in these peripheral regions risk the disapproval of government officials as they quietly reach out to console those in need.

*Editor's note: The Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters operates independently of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which funds Global Sisters Report.