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In O.C., a Bishop Into the Breach

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Times Staff Writers

It was 1985, and ugly rumors were spreading among African Americans about their newest neighbors. Word had it that immigrants from Vietnam were getting big government grants and prime jobs.

And there were darker accusations as well, blaming the disappearance of neighborhood pets on the strange eating habits of the refugees from half a world away.

The patriarch of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans, a Roman Catholic priest named Dominic Luong, decided the best way to dispel those fallacies and ease tensions was to find a shared passion. He settled on food.

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At a Saturday picnic at an apartment complex that drew hundreds, African Americans sampled pickled vegetables, fried rice, ginger-root chicken and egg rolls.

The Vietnamese immigrants ate crawfish, gumbo, and jambalaya. The event became an annual affair, and helped end growing friction between the two communities.

“We always have something in common -- we like to eat and get together,” said Luong, likening his approach to President Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy with China.

“We can always talk about our differences after we get to know and like each other.”

Many in Orange County’s Little Saigon district -- with 141,000 residents, home to the largest number of Vietnamese outside Vietnam -- hope Luong will provide the same kind of leadership for their notoriously fractured community. More than two decades after the neighborhood straddling the Westminster-Garden Grove border was born, Little Saigon has no single leader to represent the interests of residents and solve problems.

Luong, 62, is to be ordained June 11 as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Orange, which includes all of Orange County. The appointment by Pope John Paul II makes Luong the first Vietnamese American bishop in the United States.

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“There is no unifying leader in our community, so we are expecting that he will be the one to promote unity,” said Thong Tinh Le, a high school teacher from Santa Ana who met Luong in 1989 when the two formed the Apostolate Office for the Vietnamese Catholics in the United States. “What he has done in New Orleans -- we don’t expect less here.”

In Orange County, the Vietnamese American community -- much larger and more diverse than the one in New Orleans -- has been beset with power struggles.

Some religious leaders jealously guard their congregants, discouraging them from getting involved outside their church. The community’s elders cling to the dream of a communist-free Vietnam, while many younger people say it’s time to move on.

Political and activist groups compete, with none willing to share power. The once-powerful Vietnamese Community of Southern California, for example, an organization founded to help immigrants resettle in the 1980s, has dwindled and splintered into weaker factions.

Luong “could be the first person to help glue our community together,” said Van Thanh Tran, vice chairman of the Vietnamese Interfaith Council in America and senior pastor at Cross County Vietnamese Christian Church in Garden Grove.

While the majority of Vietnamese Americans in Orange County are Buddhist, about 30% are Catholic, a religion introduced by missionaries in the 16th century and later nourished by French colonists. But in Vietnamese society, religious leaders are among the most respected leaders.

As one of two lieutenants to Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown, Luong’s official role will be spiritual shepherd to the county’s estimated 1 million Catholics. But much of his value will be in the relationships he develops with its 32,500 Vietnamese Catholics, much as the other auxiliary bishop, Jaime Soto, has cultivated a leadership role among the county’s Latino Catholics.

Luong’s appointment represents many things, both symbolic and practical. The swift, single-generation rise of the Vietnamese within American society since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The chance for Vietnamese Catholics to have a voice at the top of the church’s U.S. hierarchy. The promotion of a national leader able to move deftly between matters of faith, politics and culture.

“I’ve watched him grow from a very young priest into a statesman,” said New Orleans Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who has worked with Luong since the mid-1970s. “He is truly a leader -- but first he’s a very spiritual and holy man of God.”

Luong was born outside Hanoi in 1940, the youngest of nine children. His father worked as a real estate notary, and his mother stayed home. He attended a French-Vietnamese grammar school and a parochial high school.

In 1956, he was sent by the bishop of Danang to the United States to attend seminary in upstate New York to gain an American education, with the expectation that he would return to teach Catholic university students in Vietnam.

But upon earning his seminary degree in 1966, he was ordained and asked by his superiors to stay in the United States as a chaplain and advisor to Vietnamese students. He earned master’s degrees in biology and psychology in 1967. In his 10 years working in the Buffalo diocese, he also served as a hospital chaplain and biology and psychology teacher at the seminary.

The doctors he worked with at the hospital introduced him to golf, a game that still fascinates him. A physics buff and self-taught golfer, Luong self-published an instruction book called “The 10 Commandments of Golf Strokes,” where terms like “conservation of momentum,” and “applied maximum force” can be found.

“Oh, yes, it works,” said Luong, a 17-handicapper who worries that his game will suffer because of the demands of his new job.

In 1976, Luong followed a wave of Vietnamese immigrants to New Orleans, where Catholic Church officials realized his head start in the United States made him an ideal candidate to pastor the developing refugee community. A year later, he became an American citizen.

His handiwork can be found everywhere in East New Orleans. Among the most impressive achievements: a drained swamp where Vietnamese entrepreneurs built about 1,000 apartments and homes, a church and day-care center on 35 acres.

For a while, their church was a mobile home, with the electricity supplied through eight extension cords running from nearby apartments occupied by Vietnamese immigrants. The parish -- Mary, Queen of Vietnam -- now has 6,000 members and $1.3 million in the bank, money saved bit by bit over the years.

“We think about the future of our church and don’t spend too much,” Luong said, before quickly adding, “but we’re not too frugal either.”

More than 500 people attend one of two daily Masses. On the drawing board is a new $10-million church, and four smaller missions have been set up within a 25-mile radius. The community has named a street after its pastor, Dominic Mai Avenue.

He’s made sure his parishioners have a voice in political matters. Politicians often come by the church to mingle. And though Luong makes no endorsements, congregants say they know which politicians he likes: those sympathetic to immigrants and Catholic values. Luong rents buses on election day to take elderly parishioners to the polls.

“He pushed everyone to vote,” said Nga Nguyen, his personal assistant of six years. “A lot of times, he’d call people at home, reminding them it was election day. He wanted to educate people to get involved in their own community. He told everyone their vote is very important.”

Said Hung Van Chu, director of Vietnamese education at Concordia University in Metairie, La.: “He has a great respect among others in New Orleans. Especially in the political structure who knows Father can deliver a nice chunk of votes. He’s often lobbied and wooed.”

For all his success building a parish and getting out the vote, Luong is more revered for his ability to smooth out differences between warring groups.

When American fishermen fought with Vietnamese immigrants over fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, Luong--accompanied by U.S. Coast Guard officials -- held monthly meetings up and down the Louisiana coast to explain fishing and boating regulations to Vietnamese fishermen.

The priest also emphasized that the immigrants must adapt to local fishing customs, not just the letter of the law.

“He explained to them that they could not keep having these conflicts,” said Chu, a longtime Mary, Queen of Vietnam parishioner. “Otherwise, no one will ever catch fish. The people changed their behavior.”

In addition to his picnics, Luong sent Chu and others to speak to scores of African American churches and community groups when tensions flared between the Vietnamese immigrants and blacks. The speeches tried to correct the misperceptions and also gave blacks an insight into life in the Vietnamese community.

“Now the relationship is good,” Chu said. “We all get along now.”

Luong also has helped tone down the animosity in New Orleans between anti-communist immigrants and those with ties to communist Vietnam. It’s a skill that will be needed in Orange County, where, for instance, in 1999 a Westminster video store owner was targeted by angry rallies after he displayed the red flag of communist Vietnam. “I tell them it’s about reconciliation, which is the message of the Gospel,” Luong said.

Luong says there’s no magic behind his ability to unite the community. It’s mostly about making friends, listening and -- his secret weapon -- food. He has organized joint picnics, lunches and dinners with an eclectic mix of religious and civic groups.

Though an extrovert, Luong does much of his work behind the scenes. In meetings, he often just listens, occasionally offering suggestions or bolstering someone’s point of view. It’s an approach that’s more Eastern than Western in philosophy.

“His quiet and accommodating fashion doesn’t intimidate or manipulate,” Councilwoman Willard-Lewis said. “It respects the strengths of all at the table.”

Even on the local New Orleans golf course, Luong is a celebrity. Though dressed in powder-blue seersucker pants, a plaid shirt crisscrossed in likely shades of green, red, blue, and orange, a black Nike baseball cap tipped at an angle, he gets the same respect as when he wears an alb, chasuble and stole during Mass.

Word recently had reached the golfing crowd about Luong’s promotion to bishop. Everyone wanted to give him a handshake and a hug. Some golfers drove their carts across the fairways for the chance to say goodbye.

“For a long time, I didn’t even know he was a priest,” said Jay Maumus, director of the Golf Club of New Orleans at Eastover golf club. “Father was just a nice guy who fit right in. We didn’t know he was a big deal.”

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