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The Nation

In O.C., a Bishop Into the Breach

May 17, 2003|William Lobdell and Mai Tran | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — It was 1985, and ugly rumors were spreading among African Americans about their newest neighbors. Word had it that immigrants from Vietnam were getting big government grants and prime jobs.

And there were darker accusations as well, blaming the disappearance of neighborhood pets on the strange eating habits of the refugees from half a world away.

The patriarch of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans, a Roman Catholic priest named Dominic Luong, decided the best way to dispel those fallacies and ease tensions was to find a shared passion. He settled on food.

At a Saturday picnic at an apartment complex that drew hundreds, African Americans sampled pickled vegetables, fried rice, ginger-root chicken and egg rolls.

The Vietnamese immigrants ate crawfish, gumbo, and jambalaya. The event became an annual affair, and helped end growing friction between the two communities.

"We always have something in common -- we like to eat and get together," said Luong, likening his approach to President Nixon's ping-pong diplomacy with China.

"We can always talk about our differences after we get to know and like each other."

Many in Orange County's Little Saigon district -- with 141,000 residents, home to the largest number of Vietnamese outside Vietnam -- hope Luong will provide the same kind of leadership for their notoriously fractured community. More than two decades after the neighborhood straddling the Westminster-Garden Grove border was born, Little Saigon has no single leader to represent the interests of residents and solve problems.

Luong, 62, is to be ordained June 11 as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Orange, which includes all of Orange County. The appointment by Pope John Paul II makes Luong the first Vietnamese American bishop in the United States.

"There is no unifying leader in our community, so we are expecting that he will be the one to promote unity," said Thong Tinh Le, a high school teacher from Santa Ana who met Luong in 1989 when the two formed the Apostolate Office for the Vietnamese Catholics in the United States. "What he has done in New Orleans -- we don't expect less here."

In Orange County, the Vietnamese American community -- much larger and more diverse than the one in New Orleans -- has been beset with power struggles.

Some religious leaders jealously guard their congregants, discouraging them from getting involved outside their church. The community's elders cling to the dream of a communist-free Vietnam, while many younger people say it's time to move on.

Political and activist groups compete, with none willing to share power. The once-powerful Vietnamese Community of Southern California, for example, an organization founded to help immigrants resettle in the 1980s, has dwindled and splintered into weaker factions.

Luong "could be the first person to help glue our community together," said Van Thanh Tran, vice chairman of the Vietnamese Interfaith Council in America and senior pastor at Cross County Vietnamese Christian Church in Garden Grove.

While the majority of Vietnamese Americans in Orange County are Buddhist, about 30% are Catholic, a religion introduced by missionaries in the 16th century and later nourished by French colonists. But in Vietnamese society, religious leaders are among the most respected leaders.

As one of two lieutenants to Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown, Luong's official role will be spiritual shepherd to the county's estimated 1 million Catholics. But much of his value will be in the relationships he develops with its 32,500 Vietnamese Catholics, much as the other auxiliary bishop, Jaime Soto, has cultivated a leadership role among the county's Latino Catholics.

Luong's appointment represents many things, both symbolic and practical. The swift, single-generation rise of the Vietnamese within American society since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The chance for Vietnamese Catholics to have a voice at the top of the church's U.S. hierarchy. The promotion of a national leader able to move deftly between matters of faith, politics and culture.

"I've watched him grow from a very young priest into a statesman," said New Orleans Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who has worked with Luong since the mid-1970s. "He is truly a leader -- but first he's a very spiritual and holy man of God."

Luong was born outside Hanoi in 1940, the youngest of nine children. His father worked as a real estate notary, and his mother stayed home. He attended a French-Vietnamese grammar school and a parochial high school.

In 1956, he was sent by the bishop of Danang to the United States to attend seminary in upstate New York to gain an American education, with the expectation that he would return to teach Catholic university students in Vietnam.

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