Culture of Life
Good Morning, Vietnamese Hero
BY J.B. AN DANG
May 18-24, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/13/08 at 1:01 PM
Neighbors thought Tong Phuoc Phuc (last name rhymes with “foo”) had gone mad when he built a cemetery for aborted babies and later turned his house into a shelter providing alternative services for pregnant women contemplating abortion. However, Vietnamese Catholics, who struggle to promote pro-life ideals in a society where abortions far outnumber births, see something else in him — heroic sacrifice and generosity of spirit.
Phuc, a 41-year-old Catholic building contractor in the coastal town of Nha Trang, still sounds amazed when he recounts the history of his pro-life shelter. With no expertise in healthcare, he has already saved 60 babies from death by abortion. And he is humble: He insists he wants no credit for what he recognizes as God’s work.
His story began on July 13, 2004, when he took home a pregnant girl who was evicted by her parents and had no place to go. Like other unwed pregnant women, the girl had few options. She went to a state-run hospital with the intention of getting a quick and free abortion. She had seen this as the only sensible choice to save face for her parents — until she met with Phuc, who persuaded her to seek an alternative.
He even went further, providing residence and financial support for the homeless mother until she gave birth and once again was welcomed home by her parents.
Soon after he saved his first baby, more and more pregnant women knocked at his door asking for help.
“There was a war inside me,” he says. “For every woman who came to me, there was a tale to be told, many so heart-wrenching. As a Catholic, I could not turn a deaf ear to their desperate needs. But on the other hand, with little money and no expertise on health care, what could I do to help them?”
One evening he and his wife were praying the Rosary, asking the Lord to direct them, when a friend came to return the book The Road of Hope by the late Cardinal Francis Nguyen Van Thuan, who was once bishop of Nha Trang.
“It was the answer from God,” recalls Phuc. “I had been an altar boy for the cardinal for years before he was transferred to Saigon and arrested. I could imagine that, in such a case, he would say, ‘It is a God work, just do it and God himself takes care for the rest.’”
Phuc opened wide his door for pregnant women in distress. He meets the basic needs of those in financial crisis. With unwed mothers, he offers residence as the alternative of residing away from their locality for the later months of pregnancy in anonymity.
This full-time service involves Phuc’s entire family and some volunteers from his parish. His older sister and his nieces help prepare food and infant formula for 34 babies, while some parishioners sing soothing Vietnamese lullaby to calm crying kids.
In the past four years, he has taken in 60 children; 26 of them have been taken home with their mothers. He takes care of the rest until their mothers can afford to take them. Phuc does not consider putting any of the children up for adoption. “I want them to be reunited,” he says, “with their mothers.”
Bishop Joseph Vo Duc Minh, coadjutor bishop of Nha Trang, warmly praises Phuc’s work. “It’s a great pro-life innovation,” he told the Register. “I have come to his house several times to encourage his work and to pray with him.”
“In a country where abortion is seen by the government as the major measure for birth control, more and more women seek quick abortion,” adds the bishop. “The Church faces an uphill battle to fight against this anti-life mentality. His initiatives are very encouraging.”
For Father Joseph Tran Thanh Phong, who has worked with Phuc for years in many pro-life projects, the humble lifesaver is a courageous man who put all his trust in God’s hands. “He does not have a stable financial support other than his and his wife’s salaries,” says the priest. “In a country without welfare benefits, people at his age work hard trying to save money for future uncertainties. But he and his wife work hard and then spend most of their money to save babies.”
The diocese does support him financially now and then. But “Our support is mainly spiritual,” Father Phong admits.
Father Peter Pham Ngoc Phi, his former parish priest, has supported Phuc from the very beginning of the pro-life shelter. He points to other kinds of challenges. “Some people do not like his work. Some of them believe that premarital sex is an evil that should be punished. They falsely accuse Phuc of condoning premarital sex. Others suspect his work as a means to seek conversions. So there have been unending rumors against him.”
Phuc’s response to the rumors?
“I do not reply to them. Instead, I pray more intensively, asking the Lord to give me strength and courage to be his faithful servant.”
He attends daily Mass at Nha Trang cathedral at 5 in the morning.
In the living room of Phuc’s 904-square-foot shelter, where you can hear the constant chorus of crying, coughing and cooing, Phuc has built a beautiful altar adorned with a large crucifix, the Virgin Mary and a photo of Pope John Paul II. Opposite the altar is a large table where the women gather for family-style meals, exchanging stories of broken hearts and hard lives, and for sharing cooking tips.
Says Nguyen Thi Ngoc Thao, a Buddhist mother of two who was thrown out by her husband when she refused to terminate her pregnancy: “In this house, I experience true love.”
J.B. An Dang is based in
Perth, Western Australia.
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