Every Sunday, Paul Rmah Bral and a partner, along with other friendly men in pairs, travel around on motorbikes in Vietnam's Central Highlands region introducing villagers to Catholic values. Bral is a 60-year-old ethnic Jarai, part of a wider group known as Montagnards
, who speak a Malayo-Polynesian language related to other tongues in the Asia-Pacific region spoken from Indonesia to far-away Fiji. A French Catholic missionary made contact in the mid-1800s with the traditionally animist Jarai. During the Vietnam War
, many Jarai joined with clandestine American forces and later resettled in the United States. Bral and other lay missionaries, known as giao phu
, have for the past two decades been bringing more villagers into their fold in Kontum Diocese.
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"It is the happiest thing in life to know that God creates and loves us, and to bring His love to our brothers and sisters," said Bral, a former Vietnamese language teacher who embraced Catholicism in 1995 and was baptized in 2000. He and dozens of other villagers, including his wife and son, attended weekend catechism classes held at the Redemptorist-run Evangelization Center. Local communist authorities in the Central Highlands, which borders with Cambodia, pressured locals into withdrawing from their study sessions. Bral and his son were forced to do community work and fined when they refused to obey the directive, something that inspired others to resist the harassment. His wife, Maria RCom Khit, said government officials confiscated their hymn books, Bibles and musical instruments. Now Bral himself teaches catechism, and the practice of Catholicism in his district continues to grow. In one village alone, called Pok, where Khit comes from, the number of faithful has reached 190. They regularly gather to pray in an old 40-square-meter cow shed used as a chapel and priests from other places visit to provide pastoral services. But the chapel is too small, so many worshipers must stand outside during services. "Following God means you have to accept tough challenges and even loss of earnings," Bral said of his dedication to church pursuits. The couple's five children are banned from working for local companies or public bodies. Khit said a rubber company seized two hectares of her farmland. Government officials had said she and her family would be rewarded with land if they stopped converting other villagers to Catholicism, she added. "I asked them if the dog knew its master. 'Yes, it does', they replied. I told them 'Why don't you know your boss? God created you.' Then they left saying nothing." Khit said her children as well as nieces and nephews serve as catechists, conduct choirs, play organs at services and join Catholic associations. They mostly relied on farming to obtain a meagre living but had found both God and peace of mind. Catholic values benefit villagers
Bral said Catholicism attracts many people because its values bring them a better life. People no longer feared ghosts and had mostly abandoned costly practices of animism such as offering animal sacrifices. A couple of years ago, villagers were suffering from severe drought and shamans from other places asked them to sacrifice a white buffalo. But Catholics prayed to God and dug dams to irrigate their farms, leading to many non-Catholics also deciding not to make sacrificial offerings. Bral said in the past people sacrificed poultry and cattle for others who were ill, but now medical treatment was often preferred. November is still a time for the decorating of tombs and local priests have translated the Bible and other holy books into the Jarai language. "We try our best to bring God's love to as many people as possible for their benefit," Bral said, adding he is sustained by his love for telling people about Jesus. His lay missionary son, Francis Rmal Hyun, 39, said giao phu such as himself must set a good example to other villagers by practicing their faith in daily life. "We pledge to follow God until our last breath and believe that He never leaves His children destitute and miserable," Hyun said. In 2016, Kontum Diocese had 330,394 Catholics, including 226,789 members of ethnic groups served by 2,121 giao phu lay missionaries. French Bishop Martial Jannin, the first bishop of the local church, built the Kontum missionary seminary in the 1930s. At that time the diocese had about 24,000 Catholics served by 29 foreign and Vietnamese priests and 160 ethnic catechists. The original timber seminary building is still in the compound of the Bishop's House and displays old maps, musical instruments and tools used by missioners of the past.