The image of going “beyond borders” has been popularized in the Lasallian world the past two years and locally most taken in its figurative meaning of reaching out beyond ones comfort zones. But, right before Christmas, I had the opportunity to apply its literal meaning and travel to the Philippines to visit with two Brothers from California, Br. Dat Hoang and Br. Dan Fenton, who have made it a part of their everyday lives.
Br. Dat is no stranger to going beyond borders. Born and raised in Vietnam, escaping and finding himself in a series of countries before ending up in San Jose, California where he met the Brothers, and serving in schools in California, Washington and Arizona before “going international” to Thailand, he now serves on the Novitiate staff in Lipa, Philippines. He works with a Filipino and an India Brother in the formation and preparation of 12 novices from: the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, and Egypt.
When I arrived, after the two hour drive from Manila, three of the novices (from three different countries) were preparing dinner, a kind of fusion of Pakistani and Sri Lankan cuisine. Every Sunday they prepare the evening meal for each other. Br. Dat came in a couple of times, joking with them as they worked; laughter is an important part of the novitiate especially in working through cultural differences.
Br. Dat is probably the most experienced of the staff in dealing with cultural adaption, so it was no surprise that many of the novices would lean toward his advice in their own dealings with the normal challenges of novitiate life where one is with the same people for meals, prayer, class, recreation, and ministry.
No one, including Br. Dat, has English as a first language and some only had it as a classroom taught language until they entered the Brothers and found English to be the language of their Postulancy and Novitiate programs. One on one conversations become a way to process and express coming to understand his vocation and deepen his relationship with God.
An experienced religious studies teacher, Br. Dat teaches the Scripture courses to the Novices. The Novices are great students, as all teachers should be, and I, too, was able to teach three days on Lasallian Association, our sharing mission and charism with those with whom we work and serve in the schools. Br. Dat became a very helpful resource for me in further understanding the home worlds of the Novices and how I might better engage them in the lessons.
With a hearty “goodbye” the Novices saw Br. Dat and me off as we headed to Bacolod, a one hour flight from Manila, to visit with Br. Dan Fenton, who has been serving at the Bahay Pag-asa Youth Center for two years. Bahay Pag-asa is a center for boys in conflict with the law. They live there, taking care of each other’s needs (they do all the cleaning and food prep), receive an education, and come to terms with why they are there and how to form positive goals in moving on at some point, often back to their families and towns if that is possible.
Br. Dan had been serving at Bahay Pag-asa every summer since 2004 when he and I accompanied a group of Aspirants to the Brothers to live and minister there. He found himself drawn to full time ministry there, a ministry he describes as “being a volunteer” and helping where needed. I noticed that his presence with the boys, especially at times the other staff members could not be there, like Christmas day, as being the most effective part of his ministry. As I was there for part of the nine days before Christmas, a time the Filipinos celebrate “Simbang Gabi” (Holy Night), we all were in the chapel at 5:00 AM for the services, singing in both English and Tagalog. Br. Dan would give a reflection on the Gospel of the day and one of the boys would translate it into Ilonggo, the local language. At the end of the service, Br. Dan stood at the door and the boys could take a piece of candy from a plate he had ready for them (incentive to be at the service so early, though he probably needed no incentive). The candy was a gift of Br. Patrick Martin and the students at De La Salle High School in Concord, CA that they sent over, post-Halloween, to Br. Dan who saved it all for this Simbang Gabi purpose.
Although the staff often push Br. Dan to take lead, because he is “the Brother” and that is what happens often in the culture, Br. Dan has been able to maintain his volunteer status, present to the boys in their everyday needs for education and mentoring, and their need for a Brother to guide them.
When Brothers, like Br. Dat and Br. Dan, are living out their vocation to its fullest and most genuine, there really are no borders to go beyond. In participating in the family of God, the relationships we form and nurture through our role as educators becomes its own territory that can work within any culture.
Brother James Joost, FSC