Mission Trip Reflection
CHARIS-Barré Mission Friendship | Kontum, Vietnam | 25 July – 1 August 2015
By Dionne Alviedo
“I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.
Put away the old self of your former way of life, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the
new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” (Ephesians 4, second reading on
Sunday the 2nd of Aug 2015)
As I write this, there’s a song that comes to my mind: Carrie Underwood’s Don’t Forget to Remember Me, which I first heard almost ten years ago (and didn’t really listen to again ever since). I used to find that song title funny because of its redundancy, and wrote it off as the songwriter’s attempt at novelty. Now, ten years later, I recall this odd song title and realise that it’s not so odd after all. Our lives are filled with to-do lists, scheduled meetings, reminders and alarms for practically everything. It is almost as if we would lose a significant part of our identity if we somehow cannot control our lives using all the organisation apps we have on our phones or tablets. There are so many things to remember, so many things we can’t afford to forget, so we write them down, because sometimes the hardest part is remembering not to forget.
One of the students who particularly grew close to me during our trip to Kontum is Phanh, a thirty-four years old villager. She was also at the earliest stage in her learning compared to the rest of the students. I noticed this from the first day and somehow gravitated towards focusing my attention on her learning. She is the most soft-spoken person, whether trying to speak in English, or in her local dialect, Jrai. She waited for me at the end of our afternoon class on Thursday and slipped my hands into a bracelet which I later found was from the nearby souvenir store, and when I thanked her, she whispered “not at all… just don’t forget”. As our visit approached its end, she must have said this to me a few more times. Do not forget.
As we waited for the bus that would take us back to Saigon on Friday evening, we stood by the gate with some of the students who came to see us off – Phanh, Philly, Khan, and Ko. Their goodbyes and well-wishes always included this: Do not forget. Finally, when it was time to board the bus and hug our farewells, Phanh again whispered in my ears. She said “remember, don’t forget.” Something hit me at that precise moment. All those while, I thought that it was simply a wish, a command almost, to not forget her. But I realised that she wasn’t asking me to always remember her; unlike the alarms and reminders that I set on my phone, she wasn’t telling me that this is a must-do.
I realised that her simple wish, that their simple wish, was that we would remember not to forget. Maybe sometimes. Perhaps in the middle of the day. When we meet someone who do not understand us fully. Or when we feel misunderstood. Maybe when we meet someone who is helpless, who is struggling; someone we can love as much as we said we love each and everyone of them. Perhaps just during these moments we will remember not to forget them, the friendship we’ve shared, the memories within and outside the classroom, the love that God has brought in our midst. Perhaps in remembering, we are reminded to love every other Phan, Philly, Ko or Khan who comes in our midst, and in loving, we also remember the love and friendship of those waiting for us to visit them again in Kontum.
I sat at the pews of St. Joseph Church yesterday and finally had some time and space to quieten down both my head and heart. The weekend had been busy with family activities since my arrival and I hadn’t had any moment of peace and quiet to wade my way through these thoughts and emotions. As I was walking towards St. Joseph, it painfully hit me how easy it was to go back to the busyness of city life, how easy it was to forget, amidst all the lunch and dinner appointments, all the purchases that must be made, the items that must be ticked off the to-do list before the new week starts rolling. But as I listened to the second reading yesterday, I was reminded to ‘put away the old self of your former way of life, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds’. I was reminded that I can no longer continue this busyness, that I cannot compartmentalise my life between the life I live on mission trips and the life I live in the city. I was reminded that wherever I go, there are things that I must always carry with me no matter how hectic my days become. And they are beautiful things to carry around too: such as Phan’s meekness; Philly’s hazel eyes and their hunger for knowledge; Hue’s young face strengthened by the determination to help her village people in the future; Chil’s tears as she watched the Ripples video on Youtube about children wanting to buy cakes when she herself has not tasted any cake in her life; or Phuon’s intelligence and humility. It is often easy to forget, but God himself reminds not to.
All of this might sound too sentimental. And perhaps it is. Perhaps the primary emotion I am able to feel is stirred by sentimentality. But I do hope that it doesn’t end in just sentimentality. Yesterday before I made my way to St. Joseph, I spent about 45mins shopping for books at Kinokuniya, during which time I had completely forgotten about my students in Kontum who would probably be in awe of the sheer number of books that one can find in that bookstore. I was busy searching for books recommended by Relevant magazine as ‘books you should read by 25(ish)’. I told the other missioners during the trip how much I felt at home in Kontum, yet as I was browsing through the bookshelves, I felt a sudden heaviness sink in my stomach when I realised just how relieved I was to be back in the city. Of course, this is not a bad thing, per se. Our families, our friends, basically our lives, are here. But what made my heart sink a little was the reason for that relief: I am still too attached to material things, I am still too attached to things that perhaps benefit only myself. My heart is still not yet in the right place.
And again I am reminded not to forget – not anyone in particular, but everyone who needs remembering. If I am to live wholly as the girl from the city and the girl who has friends in the town and villages of Kontum, if I am to live with the love that God has planted in my heart for these people, then in everything that I do, in every decision that I make, I must not forget to remember them. I must not forget to ask myself whether there are things in my life that I can simplify; whether there are small sacrifices that I can make that would allow me to give more; whether there are things I can afford to have less for myself, more for others, so that there would be enough for all; whether buying 2 books instead of 4 would be enough. After all, where there is knowledge, it will pass away, and only love never fails (Corinthians 13). Indeed, talk is cheap, and putting all of this into action is far more difficult than we probably dare to imagine, especially when so many things come naturally to so many of us. But I think back again on the gospel from yesterday, and I realise that there is nothing for me to worry about; that I need not worry about my hunger and thirst for knowledge, because Jesus said ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.’ Indeed, He is our source of knowledge, wisdom, and love.
May God bless and guide each and everyone of us.