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Frightening ‘exodus’ out of Vietnam leads former Buddhist and father of two into the Catholic Church

Tan Le's baptism at Easter

Father-and-son baptism: Parish priest Fr John Echewodo, holding baby Eli Vinh, is with the rest of the baby’s family Tan Le, Samantha Vy and Tam Le. Photo: St Mary’s Church, Upper Coomera.

TAN Le, 42, was robbed by pirates at sea, resettled as a refugee, and has built a successful career on his journey to becoming a Catholic.

Mr Le, a Buddhist for most of his life, and his six-month-old son Eli Vinh were baptised together at the Easter vigil celebrated in St Mary’s Church, Upper Coomera.

“It was a very special moment, doing that as father and son,” Mr Le, who was also confirmed and received his First Holy Communion at the vigil, said.

He was four years old when his family escaped by boat from the turmoil of post-war Vietnam.

“I am one of five children; the youngest of my siblings at the time was a newborn in the arms of our courageous mother when we made our exodus,” Mr Le said.

“You don’t pack your bags. You just leave with whatever clothes you have and what you have converted into gold.

“Pirates know that. They ransack your boat, and steal everything of value.”

Mr Le recalls pirates boarding and robbing all aboard his rickety fishing vessel, many days spent in rough sea, and finally a violent landing on a beach in Thailand.

“Miraculously all my siblings survived,” he said. “However, other families that we journeyed alongside were not so lucky, losing loved ones including young children.

“Many families became refugees, camping along the beach but, fortunately, our plea for help was heard by many communities around the world including the Sancta Maria Catholic Parish of Christchurch, New Zealand.”

After his family spent months in detention, the parish helped them resettle, providing a house, clothing and day-to-day needs.

“This was my first experience of the extraordinary compassion, generosity and warmth of the Catholic community,” Mr Le said.

“Although we were a family that belonged to the Buddhist faith, we would attend Mass every Sunday and we spent much time with a number of families of that parish.”

In 1989, Mr Le’s life took another turn.

His family moved to Australia to be closer to family and friends who had made the refugee boat journey together.

In Brisbane, Mr Le attended high school and later the University of Queensland, where he studied law.

“However, in accordance with God’s plan, as a young adult my career in law led me to Melbourne, where I eventually married my wife, Tam, who comes from a Catholic family and serendipitously I found myself regularly attending church again – still as a Buddhist,” he said.

While his wife was raised in a Catholic family in Vietnam and schooled by French nuns, Mr Le said it took a gradual, nine-year journey for him to decide to become a Catholic.

During that time he has also built a successful sales and marketing company.

“I was attending church to support my wife’s faith,” Mr Le said, “but it was the birth of my second child, and also seeing life through my four-year-old’s eyes – that she needed strong spiritual guidance from as many sources as possible.

“And I thought wouldn’t it be great if we all celebrated life as one aligned family in faith.”

Mr Le said he had had to learn his faith, question it and understand it from a different cultural standpoint.

“I feel blessed to have found such fine role models at St Mary’s especially Father John (Echewodo) for his commitment to God and the community that he continues to serve,” he said.

“There is so much that I am excited about in beginning the next chapter of living a life to honour Christ and the sacrifices that Christ has made for us on the cross.”

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