PORTLAND - Thanh Van, 8, leans with arms folded against a massive statue of Jesus.

Then music from a massive Catholic Vietnamese choir fills the air, and the spunky third grader tries to scramble up the statue’s stone base for a better view.

Liturgical Dance at the Freedom Mass (Photo: Gerry Lewin)
Just ahead of Thanh, more than 6,000 worshipers are receiving Communion by way of thanking God, Mary and the U.S.A. for freedom.

“It’s beautiful,” says the girl, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton.

For 33 years, refugees — and their children and grandchildren — have gathered at the Grotto in Portland for an annual Mass. Led by the Vietnamese, Freedom Sunday now includes refugees from the Laotian, Hmong, Polish, Croatian, Russian, Korean, Filipino, Hispanic and Eritrean communities.

Most who come know they cannot take freedom for granted.

Phuc Nguyen, 25, came to the United States from Saigon at age 8. Nguyen’s parents wanted him to grow up in an oppression-free country. The family trekked to Thailand and Japan before making it to the land of their dreams.

“They knew the United States was about freedom and opportunity for younger people,” Nguyen says. “It meant a better future.” He is now a technician working for Nike.

Medhanie Embaye, a 46-year-old from Eritrea, stood in suit and tie with many of his relatives, the women in long white dresses with head scarves. A member of Immaculate Heart Parish in Portland, Embaye fled his home country in the Horn of Africa in 1981 when war with the Communist regime in Ethiopia was exploding.

Fearing massacre, the family made its way to Sudan and then to Italy before finding a home in the U.S. “This is beautiful,” he says of the crowded liturgy. “This is the one day that can remind you of your freedom.”

Embaye had nothing when his family arrived. But after years of labor, he has earned enough to buy his own submarine sandwich shop in Tigard. He is the proud father of three daughters.

Grace Golonka wears a colorful traditional Polish dress, one of the ways she has maintained her beloved culture in her adopted home. Golonka escaped Communist Poland in 1979 with her fiancé just as the Solidarity movement was gaining steam.

“We understand what freedom means,” says Golonka, who has daughters aged 18 and 27. She made sure each girl became fluent in Polish.

Worshipers come to the Grotto Mass from Oregon, California, Washington and British Columbia. The weekend, a reunion as well as a Mass, includes several days of retreat at Our Lady of Lavang Church. This year’s theme focused on the Holy Spirit.

One Vietnamese-American woman, 29, admits she comes to the annual Mass mostly to please her parents. But she also has started bringing her own children. “It’s a big part of our community,” she says.

Archbishop John Vlazny, wearing vivid green vestments, seemed to revel in the mild summer day and the colorful worship.

In his homily, he warned worshipers about what he called “false freedom” prevalent in the Northwest — everyone simply wanting to do his or her thing.

“Yes, freedom is a right in this nation. But freedom comes, first and foremost, as a gift from God,” said the archbishop.

“Today Jesus Christ challenges us to reach out to those who carry heavy burdens the way God always reaches out to us,” the archbishop said. “An amazing paradox of Christian living is that the more we share the burdens of others, the lighter our own burdens seem to become.”

Each year, the crowd flows out of the Grotto’s outdoor plaza onto the wooded trails. Tired parents hold children and elders are given a place of honor in lawn chairs. The homily, prayers and passionate music are piped all over the grounds. During prayers of the faithful, the crowd remembers those who died during 20 years of warfare in Vietnam.

At the end of Mass, Msgr. James Ninh Pham, leader of the Southeast Asian Vicariate, acknowledged the many nationalities represented during the day.

“We are all united in our faith and truly brothers and sisters in Christ,” Msgr. Pham said.

Colorful Dancers from Our Lady of Lavang Parish who help in the celebration are trained in part by the Sister Adorers of the Holy Cross, a Vietnamese congregation of women religious.

Archbishop Vlazny introduced newly-ordained Father Luan Nguyen, a native of Saigon who came to the U.S. and graduated from Portland State University in 1998. The archbishop urged the Vietnamese community to support the vocations of even more young people. “Monsignor James and I can’t go on forever,” he quipped.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Archdiocese of Portland and Catholic Charities helped place Vietnamese refugees who fled their homeland after the rise of the Communist regime. The Benedictine Sisters in Mount Angel also worked to find housing. Beginning in 1975, Vietnamese from all over the west coast came to Portland for a Mass to give thanks for the opportunity to start over.

One of the most memorable Freedom Mass moments was the year a Jew and a Palestinian came to the liturgy to pray for peace for one another’s country. In the 1990s, when Iran and Iraq were at war with each other, refugee representatives from the two nations attended the Mass and walked arm-in-arm to the altar as a gesture of peace.

Last month, Vietnamese Catholics from around the country came together at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., to pray and learn about their faith.

Vietnamese Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of the southern part of the country presided at several Masses during the pilgrimage. Events included a seminar on family ministry, workshops on Catholic religious education, and discussions on the role of laypeople today as witnesses to Jesus and how families today can live their faith in the United States.

About 2,500 Vietnamese Catholics from 25 states attended this year’s national pilgrimage, sponsored by the Federation of Vietnamese Catholics in the USA. This year’s event had a special significance as it marked 20 years since Pope John Paul canonized 117 Vietnamese martyrs in 1988.

The first apparition of Our Lady of La Vang occurred in 1798. During a period of persecution, Vietnamese Catholics had taken refuge in a jungle in the La Vang region in what is now the Quang Tri province in central Vietnam. They prayed the rosary there, and one night Mary appeared to them, wearing traditional Vietnamese garb, and comforted them.

A chapel was built on the site and then a church; in 1961 the Vietnamese bishops’ council made the area the National Marian Center of Vietnam.