July 24, 2015

‘A double blessing’

From deep-fried frog to fullness of faith, journey leads to transformation of hearts and souls

Archbishop William E. Lori laughs during a homily with members of his eighth-grade graduating class and their spouses during a July 18 Mass at a Knights of Columbus hall in New Albany. Archbishop Lori graduated from Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in New Albany in 1965. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

During a recent trip to Vietnam, Franciscan Brother Moises Gutierrez poses for a photo in front of a statue of Our Lady of La Vang, commemorating how the Blessed Mother appeared to a group of Vietnamese Catholics at the turn of the 19th century when they were being persecuted for their faith. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Even with a deep-fried, full-sized frog staring at him from his plate, Franciscan Brother Moises Gutierrez didn’t waver from one of the most important lessons he has learned about connecting with people from different cultures.

“I believe food is one of the elements in a culture that is very important and sensitive,” says Brother Moises, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Intercultural Ministry. “Because of that, if you don’t appreciate the food, people might feel hurt. The opposite is also true. If you really appreciate the food—oh, my God!—instant connection. Now, I eat everything. And I mean everything.”

So in the midst of his recent journey to Southeast Asia, Brother Moises didn’t flinch when deep-fried frog was part of the dinner that was served as a family welcomed him into their home in the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

“The frog’s eyes and face are looking at you, but you just eat it,” he says with a laugh. “The people were so hospitable. They would bring one dish after another after another—wild pig, deer. They have pork skins in a lot of dishes. The dishes were spicy, and they were surprised I loved them. I said, ‘I’m from Mexico. Everything is spicy there, too!’ They were happy that I really appreciated the food.”

That instant connection was exactly what Brother Moises was seeking in his trip to Myanmar and Vietnam from June 1-14. But there was an even deeper connection beyond food that he made with people in both countries: a connection of faith.

“For me, that was the strongest experience I had—to really see their faith. They have great respect for the Church, and they are also really excited about their faith. They want to learn more, and they want to pass it on to the next generation.”

Brother Moises sought that connection of faith in Vietnam and Myanmar to help him deepen the bonds he has already established with the growing Vietnamese and Burmese Catholic populations in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“If you find a little bit of beauty in something, a person, a group of people or a culture, you say, ‘I want to learn more about it,’ ” Brother Moises says. “That’s what really led me—and led the archdiocese—to want to explore these cultures more. We learned a little bit about the Burmese culture and the Vietnamese culture, and we want to learn more.

“The more you learn, the more you become transformed by the beauty and the goodness of the other—the other culture, the other group.”

The trip had that effect on Brother Moises.

“I came back loving the Church even more so, and I already loved the Church. The faith of people in both countries stands out. In Vietnam, 17 percent are Catholic. In Myanmar, it’s only 2 percent. But in both places, their faith is really strong. It was so life-giving.”

He experienced that feeling in Vietnam when he visited the Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang. The church is dedicated to the Blessed Mother, who appeared to a group of Vietnamese Catholics at the turn of the 19th century when they were being persecuted for their faith.

“Our Lady of La Vang is the Lady of Guadalupe for the Vietnamese,” Brother Moises notes. “Her message to them was the same: ‘Don’t worry. I am here to be with you.’ I was there for Mass. It’s an outdoor basilica now. The church they had was destroyed in the Vietnam War. They are planning to build a new one. I talked to the Vietnamese about their faith and about Our Lady of La Vang. Being with them was so powerful.”

He had an even more personal connection in Myanmar, where he spent the week staying in the homes of people, many of whom have relatives in Indianapolis.

“For me, the beautiful thing is that I was able to interact with the people. The priests who took me to all these places speak English and were able to translate for me. But I’ve learned a smile goes a long way, too.

“We went to a lot of small parishes in different towns in Myanmar. It’s very rural, but they are building brand new, big churches. And every parish has a boarding school for boys and a boarding school for girls. That’s the only chance they have to further their education and to educate them in the Church. Parents sacrifice to send their kids to these schools. They want them to grow and learn about their faith. And the Church responds to that.”

Brother Moises was also impressed that Myanmar has a school that trains young lay men and women to be catechists for their Catholic faith.

“They spend three years of their life in that program. It’s an honor. They’re the ones who really carry the faith. They also have many vocations because of their love for the Church and their faith. Men and women really feel called to serve the Church.”

The trip has already provided a deeper bond for Brother Moises with the Vietnamese and the Burmese Catholics in the archdiocese.

“I’ve talked with some of the Vietnamese and Burmese here since I got back. I tell them the archdiocese really encourages us to learn more about your culture, your faith. So that was a validation for them—the archdiocese validating their presence here. They get so excited about it.”

Brother Moises smiles and adds, “I tell them about eating frog and drinking the rice wine. This rice wine comes in a clay pot. And they drink it with a straw. The deeper you go [in the pot], the stronger the wine is. I told them, ‘Of course, I went all the way to the bottom all the time.’ They love that.”

His smile widens even more.

“It’s a double blessing for me, for them, for the archdiocese. I have a better sense of continuing how to minister with them, and allowing them to transform us and transform our Church here. In the end, the whole purpose of this Office of Intercultural Ministry is mutual transformation.

“They’ve been transformed by the beauty of America and the beauty of the American Church. You see how grateful they are to be here and be in this archdiocese. Having a place to worship, a church they call home, an archdiocese they call home—they’re very grateful.

“So now we let the beauty of their faith transform us. We transform each other. The beauty of each other helps us to become better persons, a better Church.” †


Related story: Archbishop Tobin blesses first of its kind Intercultural Pastoral Institute, praises local Church’s diversity

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