12/15/2014, 00.00
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Christmas for Vuon, a Cambodian who converted and beat illness thanks to Jesus

by Luca Bolelli
Vuon is a young man living with polio, who in faith found the strength to "keep walking". During his childhood, he lived among street kids in the capital, in search of work as a source of redemption. His encounter with Jesus allowed him to overcome his alcoholism problem and create a family. A PIME missionary in Cambodia tells his story.

Kompong Cham (AsiaNews) - What follows is a letter that Fr Luca Bolelli recently sent to his friends around the world. Fr Bolelli is a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, in Cambodia for the past seven years (translation by AsiaNews).

Dearest Friends,

fraternal greetings from Cambodia. Christmas is almost upon us, and I take this opportunity once again to greet you and to thank you for your friendship and for all that you are doing for us. You cannot imagine how precious this is. We often remember you in our speeches and prayers because without your help, our community would not carry out many of its activities.

Thanks again.

Let me tell about Vuon. The first time I met Vuon, I was travelling with some Christians from our community of Kdol Leu. As we went by the mission of Kratié, we stopped to say hello to that champion of tenderness and goodness that is Sister Savier, an elderly Thai missionary.

After I got off the bus, I saw a young man coming towards me, walking with difficulty due to an obviously crippled leg, but sporting an engaging smile . . . of 34 teeth (minus two front teeth). He called me lopok, father, which is a term used with clergymen in Cambodia. I looked closer at him, but he was not someone familiar.

He introduced himself. His name was Vuon and he was going to Ratanakiri, his native province, to take his parents' ashes to a pagoda in Kratié. We talked and he told me that he had been studying at the Jesuit Centre for the Disabled in Phnom Penh for a few months.

When time came to say goodbye and resume the journey, knowing that he was broke, I gave him something, not much because I started to doubt that perhaps he was not all what he said. In return, he gave me a small wooden dove that he had carved at the Centre.

I left thinking that I would not see him again. However, on my way back that afternoon, I met Vuon at a gas station as he was waiting for a lift to Ratanakiri. When he saw me, he hugged me, moved. That gesture touched me; perhaps Vuon was more honest than I thought.

A few months later, since I had to visit the Jesuit centre, I took this opportunity to meet Vuon. When he came, he was very happy. He introduced be to his friends and showed me the house where he was living, telling me that he had started a course in farming and animal husbandry. The same thing happened again when I went a few months later, but this time he introduced me know to his teachers and showed me around the pig sties and chicken coops.

I then got an idea. At that time, with the Pastoral Council, we were are considering the possibility of starting a small project of raising chickens and pigs. I talked about it with Fr Indoon, a young Korean Jesuit who heads the Centre, and Vuon seemed right for the job.

The next time, I talked to Vuon about it. He was as happy as a clam. His course was almost finished and he could not believe it that he already had a job. The day we went together to Kdol Leu, Vuon was all excited.  During the car trip, he overwhelmed me with ideas for our project.

He went to work right away: pigsty, henhouse, shed for ducks and turkeys . . . He did not waste time. Every morning, before work, he came to Mass. He was not Christian but he liked it (in the beginning, as many others have, he mistook the church for a hospital).

He would listen to the readings, as well as my homily (probably the only one who did). One morning, during breakfast, he said, "This morning I finally understood. God the Father sent His Son Jesus to save us!" I was stunned. That morning, two had come to Mass: he and Jei Niang, who never misses it. Before, I had told myself that during the homily I would say something. Still half-asleep, I mumbled the concept, embarrassed a bit because it seemed the most trivial thing in the world. And yet, it had such an effect on Vuon.

That was at the start of Lent, with the Stations of the Cross on Friday. At the various stations, I saw Vuon fall behind everyone. Perhaps, he did not understand what we were doing. In mid-Via Crucis, I realised that he was one station behind, stopping to stare wide-eyed at the squares with images of Jesus carrying the cross. I was struck by this and the next day I asked him why he came to the Via Crucis. "Father," he told me, "Jesus suffered a lot. He can understand my suffering. . ."

After this, he began to tell me about his parents, how they were killed by an antipersonnel mine when they went to get wood in the forest when he was three years old. He told me how as an only child he was handed over to a tribal chief, a shaman of sorts, and how he snuck inside a military truck to get to Phnom Penh to seek his fortune.

After he arrived in the capital, an unscrupulous man took him under his wing, forcing him to go out to beg and hand over the proceeds every evening. Vuon could only drag himself around because of the effect of polio a few years earlier, which made him defenceless and at the mercy of others.

Often hungry, he was forced to eat what he could find on the ground, like bits of sandwiches discarded by tourists. On the street, many of his fellow homeless were drug users, sniffing glue from shoes, but he refused to do it and for this was beaten and shunned.

Over the years, some of these people died, and Vuon kept refusing drugs. Then, one day a Swiss woman saw him in the street and felt compassion for him. In Cambodia working on a number of social projects, she knew some surgeons and asked Vuon to try an operation to make him walk. Vuon accepted and the operation was a success. Despite difficulties, he began to walk.

After a few months, after finding work in a vegetable garden, he accidentally met Fr Gerald, a French missionary, who invited him to study at the Jesuit Centre for the Disabled. Vuon accepted.

As he spoke, I listened to him, moved; he really understood the meaning of the Way of the Cross!

During his first five-six months with us, Vuon was always radiant, happy and proud of his work. But one day, the unexpected happened: one of his two sows died. Crying, Vuon called me to give me the news. I tried to comfort him, but since then something changed in him. He was not joyful anymore. Over the next few months, we started to hear stories about him, that when I am not in the village, he would often get drunk.

That surprised me, and I could hardly believe it, until one day the evidence was unequivocal since even our Bishop saw him. We decided that Vuon could no longer stay with us, the situation was too compromised.

A couple in our village who run a social project in the city took him in. But there too, the same story. Vuon was the first to be distraught. He realised the problem and was tempted by despair. But there was now a little light to support him: he had with him a little picture of Jesus, which he would contemplate and which would give him comfort.

Unfortunately, he had to leave and decided to go back to Phnom Penh to look for a new job. We kept in touch by phone but after a few weeks, I stopped hearing from him. Then one day, he called me, "Father," he told me, "I am in Siam Reap. I am working at a Jesuit farm project." I was happy for him, and I hoped that this time everything would be fine.

After a couple of months, he called me again to tell me that he was working at another farm project run by a young Filipino Catholic. I thought, "Here we go again . . ." I waited for a third phone call to be told that he had changed job once again. I waited: nothing! Until I got a call in which he told me that he was working and that he was happy. And then one day, he called to tell me that . . . he had found a wife!

Vuon and Mom had a simple wedding, the modest ceremony poor people can have, and soon there was a beautiful baby girl. They live in a hut but have started to save for a house. His employer told me that Vuon is a hard worker, that he also started catechesis with his wife, and that he has not been near alcohol for quite some time.

At that time, Vuon called me often.  I could hear the baby's cries in the background, and her mother's voice. He wanted to come to say hello to us in Kdol Leu, because it had been more than two years since we had last seen each other. However, he was too far away.

Two weeks ago, an opportunity came up. His papers showed that he was a resident in our village, and had to change them. He took the opportunity to come with his family. When they arrived, there was a surprise: instead of three, they were four. Mom had had a child with a man who left her when she was three-month pregnant.

During that visit, we talked a lot. Vuon told me that now, when he has some money in his pocket, he can no longer spend it for himself, because he has to think about his little girl and about what she might need.

As I listened to them, I remembered what Vuon was only a few years ago and I felt so much admiration for him. When they left, I give them something to help them finish building their new house. I told him that it was not my money but money from many friends (you!) who help us from Italy. With tears in his eyes, Vuon thanked God and promised to pray every day for these friends.

When I think about Vuon, I think about someone on his way. He has a thousand reasons to stop, taking it out on life, demanding whatever he did not get. Instead, he goes on, dragging his leg because of polio and other, much deeper wounds that only God knows.

I think about his wife Mom, and Somnang (which means lucky in Khmer), her first child. I think about their daughter, Maria, whose name they chose in honour of the mother of Jesus.

I think also about the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph, who must have used up many sandals on the roads of Israel, and about a much longer and difficult inner journey: one of hope and confidence. This means that life is in hands greater than ours, that I am submerged in a good project - an infinite desire for good that heals very big rifts and very deep wounds. Hence, we, like Mary and Joseph, and Vuon, must always have a lot of hope.

This is what I wish you, from the bottom of heart, for this Christmas!

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