DWC grad receives Matthew 25 Award

PaulDinh Nguyen, '89, recognized for work with medical aid missions in Vietnam.

A decade ago, PaulDinh Nguyen volunteered to go on a medical mission trip to Vietnam. In the middle of the trip, he found himself running the operation. Since then, the 1989 graduate of Divine Word College has organized dozens of such mission trips. For his continued humanitarian efforts, primarily through the non-profit Medical Aid Project, Paul is being honored with the Divine Word College Matthew 25 Award for 2014.

 Fr. John Szukalski, SVD, Mr. PaulDinh Nguyen, Fr. Tim Lenchak, SVD

“When I received the letter notifying me of the award, my first reaction was that I am not worthy of it,” he said. “The Bible verse is very vivid and strong, who is worthy of this? It took me two weeks to respond to accept, because I felt humbled to receive this.” 

Fr. John Szukalski, SVD, a classmate of the award winner and now a faculty member at DWC, nominated Paul for the award.

”Although he did not continue to novitiate with the SVD, he is very active in ministry to the poor, elderly and sick,” Fr. John wrote. “His ministry is well known to many SVDs and has strong links with our mission ideals.” 

Born in Nha Trang, Vietnam, he and an older brother made their way to the Palawan refugee camp in the Philippines in 1979, where they were prepared to transition to the U.S. The next year, they settled with an uncle in Edison, New Jersey. At 13 and speaking little English, his early years in the U.S. were tough. On his first day of school, his uncle—who also spoke little English—told him to look for an orange bus. The problem was that after school, all the buses were orange.

“My first memory of the U.S., I didn’t know how to take the bus back home,” he said. “Now I look back, I don’t know how we survived without speaking any English.”

After six months, he moved to San Jose, California where there was a larger Vietnamese community, and where he found out about the Society of the Divine Word through another uncle, Fr. Peter Hung, who taught philosophy at DWC. Paul enrolled in the minor seminary at East Troy, Wisconsin in 1981. Hindered at first by language, he showed a strong aptitude for math and science and, along with Fr. John, became a top student. They both enrolled in DWC in 1985.  With a better command of the English language, his college years were happy ones and he graduated with Fr. John in 1989, with a major in psychology and sociology. He also left with a strong desire for missionary work.

Paul applied for the SVD novitiate and was accepted, but he also applied to work as a volunteer in the Filipino refugee camp that helped him transition from Vietnam to the U.S. Already serving in the camp were two SVDs, Fr. Joe Tri and Fr. Joseph Dao, who knew him and gave him strong recommendations. That led to a job offer that kept him in the camp for four years. He returned to the U.S. in 1993 and joined with another classmate who was in the restaurant business in Spokane, Washington. Deciding that was not for him, four years later he returned to Chicago and got a job working with the elderly at St. Thomas of Canterbury parish, which spun off into other duties involving youth, parish ministry, organizing summer camps and teaching religious education classes. During this time, he flew regularly to Washington, D.C., trying to organize a medical mission to Vietnam on his own. By 2002, he decided he needed to find a job that would provide an income but also allow him the freedom to do mission work whenever he wanted to go. So he became a tax preparer—whose busy times are February, March and April for typical filings and October for extensions—while still helping out in the parish.

In 2004, Fr. Tien Tran, a diocesan priest from Vancouver, Canada, was in Chicago on a sabbatical and visited the parish. For ten years, he operated Medical Aid to Vietnam, a non-profit which organized mission trips which attracted medical volunteers who wanted to help underserved populations. He invited Paul to join the next trip, and he quickly agreed. Everything went well for the first half of the two week stint.

“The coordinator of the team got sick, so they asked me to lead the second week!  I told them, ‘Sure I’m willing,” Paul said. “From that day on, I took over as coordinator and I established the office here in Chicago and took the name Medical Aid Project.”

Today, Paul coordinates a mission trip every eight months. Prior to the trip, he invites physicians, dentists, nurses and other health professionals, as well as support volunteers to sign up. They not only pay their own plane fare, but donate $1300 for medical supplies and other medical expenses. Sometimes he has to turn people away because the groups can get too large. Paul arrives at the location in Vietnam a week ahead of the others to meet with local volunteers and to prepare for the medical mission. After a welcoming banquet, the next day he divides the group into one-to-three teams, each going to a different “clinic” area.

Medical Aid Mission Team -- February 2013

“We work with not just Catholics, but all kinds of religious groups, including Buddhists, and use the church, the convent, the temple, any large area, to set up the clinic,” he said, making use of whatever furniture can be useful, from tables and chairs to benches. “If we see a patient with a severe ailment, we send them to the hospital for treatment or x-ray, and pay for it. We pay for everything.”

After the two weeks are up, Paul sees the volunteers off and then spends an additional week meeting with volunteers in Vietnam and making contacts for the next medical mission trip.

“Part of the reason I do this is I think Divine Word College instilled in me the value of missionary work,” he said. “When I was in the seminary in Epworth, I always wanted to be a missionary. I consider myself helping people, it’s very rewarding. I find happiness in doing the work.”

Fr. John supported Paul’s self-evaluation when he nominated his old classmate for the Matthew 25 Award.

“Paul embodies the kind of missionary spirit that we seek to foster here at DWC,” Fr. John wrote, “a concrete example of what students and graduates of DWC can do.”