Serving South Philly's Vietnamese community with faith and works - Generocity Philly

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Jun. 19, 2019 3:58 pm

Serving South Philly’s Vietnamese community with faith and works

Generocity asked nonprofit leaders whose work centers immigrants to write about immigrant leaders they know or with whom they work. Here, the executive director of the Aquinas Center profiles Chinh V. Dinh.

Chinh V. Dinh.

(Photo by Bethany Welch)

This is a guest post by Bethany Welch, executive director of the Aquinas Center in South Philadelphia.
There are weeks when I see Mr. Chinh V. Dinh with more frequency than anyone else in my life.

We often run into each other before Daily Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Community where the liturgy is celebrated next door to the church in an adjacent building. Since retirement, Mr. Dinh serves as the sacristan, meaning he prepares the small chapel for the sacrament of Eucharist. He counts out the hosts, ensures that the readings are ready for the day, and tidies up.

Later in the day, I am likely to see him outside the St. Thomas Aquinas Independence Mission School waiting to pick up his grandson. Come evening, Mr. Dinh arrives around 7 p.m. for English class at Aquinas Center, or for a parish leadership meeting.

When I sat down to ask Mr. Dinh more about his life prior to the context in which I know him, he described coming to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. “I was a junior officer ranking as a Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) in the Vietnamese Navy,” he said, “when I left Vietnam after the fall of the Republic of Vietnam government.”

He first landed at a refugee camp near Harrisburg. After four months there, he was sponsored by St. Alphonsus parish and resettled near Bethlehem Pike.

In 1977, Mr. Dinh began undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa and later transferred to Penn State. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and began working for the U.S. Navy where he stayed for his entire career, making his way to the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia for 34 years.

Mr. Dinh was separated from his wife and young son for his first few years in the U.S.

Eventually he was able to sponsor them, and they arrived in 1984 after he was living in South Philadelphia with friends. It was then that he bought a home and put down roots in the neighborhood, which included becoming a parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas. In 1986, Chinh and his wife Quy, along with their son Giang, welcomed Christopher, their second son who was born here in Philadelphia.

Up until that point, Mr. Dinh describes himself as someone who was focused on studying English and building a life for his family.

However, in 1988, something new began to unfold. Reverend Joseph Dinh C. Huynh (no relation and now deceased) was installed as a diocesan priest at St. Thomas Aquinas to accompany and serve the growing Vietnamese refugee community in the neighborhood.

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Chinh describes, with a smile, that it was like “being kidnapped.” His life would never be the same. Father Joseph asked him if he knew any other Vietnamese Catholics and together, they began to build up a community of worshippers. They began small with 15-20 people meeting in a small chapel on Sunday afternoons and grew to 300 people within a matter of years.

The arrival of more and more refugees showed a need for resources and support services. Not only did Father Joseph and Mr. Dinh focus on spirituality and faith, they responded with material and educational supports by starting the Asian Social Service Center in a row house adjacent to the large parish campus.

This location became a critical entry point for families. Mr. Dinh was the lead volunteer, for years, for English classes and basic literacy. He later transitioned those same skills and enthusiasm to the Aquinas Center, which was established in 2013 in the parish’s former convent.

When asked what he enjoys most about being part of the community, he quickly smiles and says that it is “working with other people,” from all different backgrounds.

With nearly 1,400 people attending six Masses in four languages across Saturdays and Sundays, there are plenty of projects, programs, events, classes, and committees to navigate and negotiate. He points to the cultural differences across these diverse groups as the greatest challenge to doing meaningful work.

When asked what he is most proud of, looking back over his life, Mr. Dinh describes how he “had been changed” in the process of serving. He describes being a regular Catholic who goes to Mass on Sundays to someone fully immersed in the life of the community, through faith, and hands-on service.

“I got involved and then I found myself helping all the time,” he states. And indeed, he is often one of the first to arrive and the last to go home.

Chinh is the faithful glue that knits together so much of the foundation — and the future — of a community like St. Thomas Aquinas.

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