Monday, November 14, 2016

Building stronger communities

A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great. Proverbs 18:16

We slogged through the mud to the village of Dia, about three hours northwest of Hanoi in the Tan Son district. The people here are an indigenous ethnic group called the Muong. Their ancestral home and former livelihood is now in the nearby mountains, a national forest no longer available to them. The Muong and their Dao neighbors are left to make their way as farmers. New gifts and new skills to use the land do not come naturally to them.

The new farmers are learning to grow vegetables in the winter in addition to the two crops of rice they grow throughout the year. MCC works here in six villages in two communes, or townships, working and learning alongside the Muong in agriculture and education projects and in peacebuilding workshops.

The village of Dia includes 55 households, about 200 people. With MCC’s help, Ha Phi Chung is raising rabbits. In the past six months, she has been able to sell several dozen rabbits and earn about $4 million dong ($200 USD) and is still able to give away six rabbits to another family, the same number of rabbits she first received.

It is not enough income, Chung tells us, because she wants to build a house, But it is enough to earn money for food and to keep members of her family from traveling to other communities to earn more money to send back home. Chung’s neighbor has been trying to raise chickens, but the village is too close to the forest and snakes have been feasting on the chickens.

At the school, just a short way down the road, several women are preparing a lunch for the children. MCC has shared its resources to help the community build a school kitchen. The children can now stay at school over lunchtime. The children have enough to eat, their parents can keeping working in the fields and the children are more likely to stay now for the afternoon school session.  

We meet a young couple who attended two MCC peace trainings and are now prepared to share their skills to mediate community disputes, many of which involve overconsumption of alcohol and domestic violence. Inaccessible roads, little or no electricity and not enough work to grow the food they need for their families all contribute to unhealthy home lives. Each of the six villages where MCC works has a community mediation group of five men and five women who are now available to respond to community disputes.

We later meet with government officials who ask MCC to expand our resources to work with other villages and communes in the region. Small gifts from MCC have opened doors to help build stronger communities and relationships. When we share our gifts, they are shared with others.  

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A heart to learn and a heart to care

Exodus 34:7 (GNT)
I will not fail to punish children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the sins of their parents.

Paul and Esther Bucher are two of seven foreigners living in the Quang Ngai province of Vietnam. Esther is an occupational therapist. We watch her work and play with children at the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) day care center in Pho Duc.

In the 60s and early 70s, during the “American” war in Vietnam, the U.S. military
sprayed millions of gallons of the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange on the countryside of Vietnam. The purpose was to eliminate ground cover, destroy crops and force civilians into the cities so that the resisting Vietnamese forces could be killed more easily.

Instead, more than 400,000 people were killed or disabled by Agent Orange and, since then, a half million more children have been born with disabilities caused by these chemical toxins. American soldiers serving in Vietnam during the war have been disabled by the chemicals as well.

With MCC’s help, VAVA works with families and children affected by Agent Orange. Another project provides a cow to 20 families who have a family member with an Agent Orange disability. A cow will supplement the family’s income after the first calf is shared with another family in a similar situation.

We visited Nguyen Thi Sun who received one of the cows. Her son, Phuoc Han, age 14, was born with severe disabilities caused by Agent Orange. Eight months ago, Thi Sun’s husband died. Even though her son, Phuoc Han, can’t sit up in his chair by himself and sometimes falls out of it, his mother still has to work in the fields and tend the cow. She has no choice.  

Thi Sun gave her cow’s first calf to another family and she is hoping her cow can produce another calf soon.

Nguyen Thi Du is the person who received the calf from Thi Sun. Thi Du had to sell the cow she had previously owned because her
husband was sick with Agent Orange. Thi Du says her husband is always sick. Thi Du has a small plot of land where she plants two crops of rice each year. She has enough rice to feed her family if the weather is good, but last year, her land flooded out and she was not able to harvest the second crop.

Thi Du has had her new calf for just three weeks. The calf was only five months old when she received it, and she says it was small and weak, but Thi Du says the calf has already grown stronger and she has hope that the calf can help provide additional income for her in the future.

At the VAVA day care center in Pho Duc, both Esther and Paul are working as MCC volunteers alongside the VAVA staff. Paul works on special projects, like the organic garden he is planning, and Esther continues her occupational therapy with children and adults and she trains other staff as well. At lunchtime, we watch the children interact with each other and feed themselves, something Esther says could not have happened, even several weeks ago.

“In my heart,” says Esther, “I care for all people, like my father taught me, because each person is different and special, and each one is loved,” Esther says that if people have a heart to learn and to care, change can happen.

When we leave the daycare center, we visit the father of one of the children. Pham Van Trinh was exposed to Agent Orange as a nineteen-year-old soldier in 1971. He shows us his leg that still itches from the exposure to the toxin. He has built a railing outside his home so that his disabled daughter Minh can exercise. He tells us of two other

families in the neighborhood who have children disabled by Agent Orange.

As I watch Esther and Paul interact with these families, I am reminded that God’s love runs deep, as we read in the book of Exodus, but God also holds us responsible for our sins, even the sins of our parents.  

Exposure to Agent Orange during the war more than 40 years ago, has brought anguish today to thousands of families in Quang Nai province of Vietnam. As American Christians, that sin is ours.

The prophet Ezekiel tells us that the children will not share the guilt of their parents when they do what is right and fair.  Paul and Esther give me hope that, in the future, we will be able to do what is right and fair for the people of Vietnam.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.