Faces of the Delta: Father Vien
By Amanda Moore, National Wildlife Federation
Next in our Faces of the Delta series, you will meet Father Vien: Vietnam refugee, New Orleans priest, urban gardener and coastal restoration advocate.
Name: Father Vien The Nguyen
Location: New Orleans East
Occupation: Chairman of the Board for Mary Queen of Viet Nam (MQVN) Community Development Corporation, former priest at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans
Father Vien, talking about the MQVN Church: I think we are probably the most international parish in New Orleans. We have Caucasian-Americans, Latino-Americans, Vietnamese and African-Americans in this parish. It’s trilingual. Our masses are trilingual: one in Vietnamese, one in English and one in Spanish.
Tell me about your connection to south Louisiana. What brought you to the area? I was born in Vietnam. I came here in 1975 with the fall of the south (Vietnam). First, my family settled in southeast Missouri from 1975 to summer of 1977. Then we moved to New Orleans.
I was 11 years old when I first arrived in America, so in many ways, I grew up here. I attended junior high, high school, college and graduate school here. We came here because we were very isolated in Missouri. We were the only Vietnamese family in probably a 30-mile radius. We didn’t know any English at all. We had no transportation.
We visited New Orleans in 1976 to visit the Vietnamese priest who was our chaplain in our refugee camp in Arkansas. It was a very heart-warming experience because there was a large number of Vietnamese in the area. We felt very at home because of the language. So we decided to move here in 1977.
What does south Louisiana mean to you? It’s home, in many ways. It’s home because as a priest with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, I have a commitment to New Orleans and the church has a commitment to me. We are committed to each other, and I am bound to New Orleans for the rest of my life. My family grew up here. Part of the Vietnamese culture is that the land is very important because that is where we bury our loved ones. I remember a story with respect to New Orleans East: someone was talking about moving away and the response was you can’t–this is where we buried our dead.
What are your favorite things about the area? The food is exciting. I like the overall atmosphere. It’s very relaxed compared to other locations. About half of my assignments have been in open areas. I don’t like the city. I come from a farming family. We like open areas. New Orleans East (Mary Queen of Vietnam’s location) is more open than the rest of the city. East of this church is 28 acres. We have an urban farming initiative. The farms will go on the 28 acres. One well-known chef here, John Besh, is interested in buying from us. Some others are interested as well.
How has coastal land loss impacted your life? The wetlands weaken storm surges. My understanding is that right now, we are sitting next to Lake Borgne. It used to be that wetlands were some 50 miles from here. Now they’re just a few miles–7 or 8.
Also, the community itself has changed. We lost some people. We lost only one to death. We lost some people to evacuation. There are people who have not returned–a few hundred. We have recovered about 95% of our homes. As of now, New Orleans East has no hospital. We used to have two hospitals in New Orleans East. We have none at this point. So we really have to fend for ourselves. It’s easily an hour with typical traffic to be picked up and taken to the hospital in an ambulance. That’s why we’ve established our own clinics. And we rebuilt our own school. In many ways, what we’ve been trying to do this to create a normalcy and a resiliency. If in the future, something like Katrina were to happen again, we will be the ones that decide whether our clinics open or our schools open. The mom and pop stores have returned quite quickly. The nearest major grocery store is probably 10 miles from here and that didn’t open until about two or three years after Katrina.
Why do you think coastal restoration efforts are important? What do you think are the most crucial aspects of Mississippi River Delta restoration? I think the important aspects are the protection from storm surge, habitat for wildlife and the livelihood of people. I’m talking about oysters, talking about shrimping, talking about crabbing, fishing, etc. Losing that is losing a major aspect of the food industry.
What obstacles do you see hindering restoration? Two obstacles. One: Education. So that people can learn more about it and know the dynamics. The other obstacle is funding. Since it costs a lot, there has to be a passionate will to carry it out and to say, “This is important. This is something we need to do.”
What do you fear losing if we don’t take action to restore coastal Louisiana? Losing this place. Cities, people and all of that which has sustained people throughout the U.S. and New Orleans. The land loss will continue. The erosion will continue. Where does it stop? There has to be an agreement between the storms and the people or it will continue to carve into this nation.