Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Village Called Versailles

I recently saw a wonderfully moving documentary on PBS’s program Independent Lens. A Village Called Versailles told the story of the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans before and after Katrina. Their story was largely overlooked by the mainstream media, but I had heard snippets of their experiences over the years. It is an amazing story that the film tells in greater detail.

The film begins by explaining how this group of Vietnamese refugees initially came to New Orleans, and settled in a cluster of apartments called Versailles in New Orleans East. The trauma of their escape from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, and their journey to the United States was heart-wrenching. The film shows how the refugees worked hard for over 30 years to rebuild their lives and build a strong community in their new homeland. Then Katrina hit.

The Vietnamese American community of Versailles was devastated when the levees broke. The community was forced by rescue workers to go to the convention center, where they languished for days. Then they were eventually placed on buses for evacuation centers in Texas and Arkansas. The experience was particularly painful for the older Vietnamese Americans because it was so reminiscent of their initial arrival in the U.S. as refugees. Perhaps because of that prior experience, they were arguably even more determined than some New Orleanians to return. One elderly man was interviewed for the film, and explained that when he was forced from his home in Vietnam, he could have no hope of ever returning. But he was determined to not be permanently forced from his second home, New Orleans. That was not an option. The film focused largely on the community’s efforts to return to New Orleans and rebuild their community.

For purposes of this blog, I would like to focus on the role of the community’s church. Most in the community are Catholic, and Mary Queen of Vietnam Church has been the spiritual center of the community. The pastor, Father Vien, helped organize the parishioners as the waters began to rise after the levees broke. When the community was evacuated from New Orleans, he traveled great distances to visit his flock and minister to them in person. He also began rebuilding the church almost immediately. Footage shows him on the roof of the church with a hammer in hand in the blazing sun. Just weeks after Katrina, they were able to begin having mass again. Parishioners drove hours and hours on Sundays just to participate in worship at their home parish. It was a huge encouragement to the scattered community, and served as a major impetus for members of the community to return.

As the city began to rebuild, plans initially were made in a vacuum to not repopulate much of New Orleans East. Then Mayor Nagin used emergency powers to establish a major storm debris landfill on the edge of the Versailles community. The Vietnamese American community was outraged. They feared the toxicity of the landfill would be the death nail in their community, and they wouldn’t stand for it. Under the leadership of their priests, Fathers Vien and Luke, the community organized and protested effectively to close the landfill. The community had not been active in politics before, but through the leadership of their priests and the galvanization of their community, they found their political voice. It was particularly beautiful to see the elderly residents of Versailles participate in rallies. They had escaped a totalitarian regime that stifled freedom of expression. They were fighting for the continuity of their community.

I also found it very moving that the people of Versailles organized events to reach out beyond their own ethnic community. They held masses and candlelight vigils that were attended by Vietnamese Americans as well as African Americans. Currently, Mary Queen of Vietnam Church offers services in Vietnamese, English and Spanish.

John 13:35

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

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