Pastor Hien The Chu found passion in life by overcoming hardship.
Words by Ann Ivy Male
“I escaped from my country with 80 other people on a small boat in May 1988. We became lost on the Pacific Ocean and after four days, we ran out of food and water. On the sixth day, a French cargo ship rescued us and landed the group at the Vietnamese refugee camp in Palawan, a small island in the far south of the Philippines.” — Hien The Chu
When France returned Vietnam to the Vietnamese in 1954, it was divided into two countries with the intent to carry out democratic elections to reunify them. North Vietnam was under Communist rule and South Vietnam was under Western democratic influence. Unfortunately a peaceful reunification did not take place, and instead a guerilla war festered for 10 years before a full civil war commenced in 1965, culminating with the defeat of the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces in 1975. Pastor Hien Chu was born in 1966, and his father was a colonel in the South Vietnamese Army.
“At that time, we lived a privileged middle-class life in the country’s capital, Saigon,” he tells me. “However, in 1975 when South Vietnam lost the war to the North and the Communists stormed the capital, my family’s troubles began.”
Pastor Hien’s family was torn apart when his father, along with other South Vietnamese army personnel, was taken away to a “re-education camp” which was situated in an extremely remote area of the country. The family was now destitute and used whatever means they could to support themselves. Pastor Hien remembers being 11 years old and accompanying his mother to sell used clothing at a black market where people gathered on the street to sell a variety of merchandise and food to survive. Pastor Hien writes in his memoir: “The market stinks with the smell of urine, rotting food and sewage. People crowd each other pushing, selling, buying, eating, spitting and shouting. My mother’s business goes poorly. She has never done this before. To be a good street vendor, a person needs a big mouth, a big body and strong fists. Mom has none of these.”
ESCAPE TO CANADA
A few years later in his personal quest for survival, pastor Hien endured several failed attempts to escape his country. He explained how many people from sheer desperation had no other choice but to set out in boats in search of a better life. When Hien arrived at the refugee camp in Palawan, he volunteered for the United Nations as an interpreter. He lived at the camp for two years and was then sponsored by his brother, who had escaped to Canada and eventually settled in Mississauga.
Pastor Hien was soon hired by the UN as a Vietnamese/English translator and continued to work with his people as they prepared for the transition back to Vietnam. After his posting, he returned to Canada and pursued a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in information studies at the University of Toronto.
I asked pastor Hien, who is now married and has two children, what inspired him to keep focused as he endured his hardships. “I realized that in my life, there were so many things I could not control but in order to overcome this I had to have a very strong sense of self and to trust my inner voice.” He then explained that when he lived at the Palawan refugee camp, he attended a Christian church and there he felt a higher spiritual connection that helped him to persevere. As he established his life in Canada, working in the field of information technology, he said he continued to feel restless and determined that he was not fulfilling his vocation. He enrolled in seminary school and went on to receive his Master of Theology Studies while still working a full-time job.
Pastor Hien is currently working at the Mississauga Vietnamese Alliance Church as a full-time pastor. His congregation is predominantly Vietnamese, and they rely on his wisdom and guidance as they establish their lives in a new country. “I finally feel that the work I am doing is gratifying because now I am helping others blend into the fabric of North American society and overcome issues of integration, financial hardships, loss of family, relationship issues and so on.” He also stated, “I left my country with a heart racked with hatred and bitterness towards my own people. But after I found God, His love touched my heart and set it free from that resentment. I know now that I can love all of my people, despite their religions or ideologies.”
Pastor Hien finally feels content knowing that while he’s investing his life in others, he, in turn, has found his true passion. He tells me that he is trying to set an honest example for his congregation because he too has suffered a great deal and witnessed loss in many ways, but yet he still has hope in humanity and it is this hope that encourages him to continue his work.
My last question for pastor Hien was the meaning of his name— Hien The Chu—and his response was: “A life full of glory.” After our discussion, I walked away with a smile realizing that pastor Hien may be too humble to admit it, but through his actions he has truly lived up to his name and is an inspiration. In speaking with him, I felt that no matter what challenges life may throw at you, if you believe in yourself and invest in others’ lives in whatever manner you choose, life always has a way of guiding you in the direction you were meant to follow.