Guest Homily by Oliver Meeker, 2/22/2020

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On Sunday, 22 February, at the invitation of The Rev. Clarence, the following homily was delivered by Oliver Meeker. A 2009 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hobart College, Geneva, New York, and a recipient of the Fulbright Graduate Scholarship for Study in Viet Nam, our guest resides currently in New York City, New York.

Thanks Dr. Butler and thank you to the congregation. It is humbling and with great honor that I stand before you to share some thoughts this morning.

By way of background regarding my relationship with Dr. Butler: I have known him since 2005 – originally as one of the few college students that went to the gym at 6:00 a.m., then realizing Dr. Butler, also there at 6 o’clock in the morning, was the Dean of the College – this goes to show how out of touch I was—and eventually a dear mentor of mine, that was essential in helping build the foundation of my professional success today. Toward the tail end of my time at college, I would attend his homilies occasionally at Trinity Church in Geneva, NY, where, after his retirement from his job as Dean of the College, he was in charge, as I found what he had to say was thought provoking and inspiring. Over the years Clarence, as he has asked me to address him, became so much more than a Dean to me. For example, when I was living overseas, he invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him, his older favorite daughter—he has also a younger favorite daughter—and her family in Hong Kong – it was an important respite and connection with someone from back home during a tough transition from college in Upstate NY to living permanently in Sai Gon, Viet Nam.

I decided to take a bit of a different path than most college students graduating in my class. I moved to a country we were once at war with. Some people might say, we were protecting democracy. Others say we were colonizing. Regardless, as someone that has studied Viet Nam quite a bit, I can say with some degree of confidence, it was an extremely complicated situation.

A very simplistic way to frame Viet Nam is, that it is a country of 97 [million], 15th most populous in the world, 50% of whom are under the age of 35. Therefore, these latter were not born during the American War, as they say. A dear professor [of] mine, who worked with Dr. Butler and who is a proper scholar on Viet Nam, not some charlatan like myself, would say: Viet Nam was ruled by China for 1000 year, by France for 100, and by the US for 30. However, I am not here to offer a history lesson: one, because I am sure I would offend a historian and, two that is what Wikipedia is for, or preferably the library.

What I would like to share are a few personal experiences that I reflect on almost daily that provide me with great inspiration and happiness during this rather challenging political social environment both in our country and abroad.

Even though my experiences in Viet Nam were overwhelmingly positive, the question I got most often from my fellow Americans would usually be negative, for example:

1. Are the Vietnamese, you know, nice to you? Aren’t they mad about the war?

2. Whoa, you speak Vietnamese! Does that mean you can understand when they are trying to screw you over on price?

Allow me to breakdown these questions and offer a different perspective on how I processed, and then responded to them, based on my knowledge and continuous education on this very special place I once called home, Viet Nam.

Number One: Historically, I like to frame Viet Nam’s relationship with the U.S. as the following. The 30- years conflict in Viet Nam is the equivalent of a mosquito on an elephant’s rump—we are but a speck of dust in Viet Nam’s extremely impressive history. Most Vietnamese view themselves as amazing victors that won two consecutive battles against two of some of the most materially rich & advanced armies in the world at the time, France and the U.S., respectively. Not only did they do that, but they did it, more or less, consecutively.

Finally, Viet Nam not only has a very young population that was not born during the conflict, but their culture, majority religion, and community are anchored in future thinking, while also paying respect to their ancestors. This has allowed them to catapult from a country once in serious economic shambles in the late 1980’s, to one of the fastest growing economies and geopolitical players in South East Asia today.

Personally, I experienced this through the continuous acceptance and openness from my countless experiences in Viet Nam – even in some of the roughest areas that experienced extreme hardship at the hands of the U.S. For example, the area known for the “My Lai” massacre is in central Viet Nam. This was a big turning point in the U.S.’ perception of the war. It was a situation where elders, children, and suspected Viet Cong were indiscriminately killed.

Almost 11 years ago, I was traveling there with a dear friend, and if there were one place I expected in Viet Nam to still harbor resentment because of the atrocities during that time, I was assuming it would be there. Instead, we got welcomed into someone’s house that came from the community for many years, fed us, laughed, exchanged stories, and made a connection I will never forget.

It is highly likely the Vietnamese we were eating with that day would’ve been my enemy, if it were 45 years earlier. I would likely have been pitted against them in a very complicated conflict and one or both of us would have died. Instead, that is history. And the approach I observed from the Vietnamese was: [to] learn from what one can do: pay respect to their ancestors and embrace a brighter future. I found they didn’t dwell on the past, as one cannot change it.

I think it is safe to say that large swaths of our community in the U.S. could use a dose of this approach, and it starts with communities like this one—setting the example of being open, accepting, or as Luke says in chapter 6, verse 31—”And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

Number two. It may seem strange to hear this, but at one time I would have been able to give this entire homily in Vietnamese. So, it is safe to say, I was relatively well versed in getting around on the streets of Sai Gon or Ho Chi Minh City, but the denizens still call it Sai Gon.

I was almost always shocked by the follow-up question to number one, “You must have been able to hear them talking about you, right?!”—when the reality is, as I try as a principle my hardest, knowing I have my blind spots and unconscious biases that I need to compete with, not to assume the worst or judge a book by its cover, so to speak.

I knew partly, if I were to have that type of approach, I would be terminally on the offensive and bound to get frustrated in my attempt to connect with the Vietnamese. I mean, how could I have a genuine connection with a fellow human being, a Vietnamese, if I were assuming they were going to try to pull one over on me or take advantage of me?

Instead, I embraced them, assumed the best. Of course, I might’ve overpaid for something a few times, or been spoken to in a dismissive way, but that was a very small price to pay for the amount of overwhelming support and love I got from the Vietnamese that came in the form of being invited over to people’s homes during the most sacred holiday of the year, Tet – or Lunar New Year, without fail, or being picked up from the airport by a friend’s parents that I had never met before, and ultimately considering Viet Nam as a second home.

Needless to say, this taught me the value of having a genuinely open heart and mind with a country we were once at conflict with, not that long ago — where we lost almost 60,000 soldiers and, depending on the numbers one cites, upwards of 3 million Vietnamese killed.

Another way to consider this is summed up well by Matthew, Chapter 7, verses 1 & 2:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will [be] measured to you.”

In closing, I thank this warm [and] accepting community around me that is not all that different from my experience in Viet Name – some 10,000 miles away in a vastly different culture, language, and climate. This is the power of what a strong community that is judgment free, accepting, and hoping for the best, can bring.

I’d like to leave you all with a bit of inspiration and hope that despite the challenges we are facing today, our country has seen much tougher times and has overcome them. Similarly, a country on the other side of the planet, once at war with us, has been able to transform itself in 30 years to become a powerful country in the region, but more importantly an accepting place – similar to the community I am standing in now. When we are accepting and open to others, we can rebuild bridges, create connections that we thought were no longer possible, and form unexpected new relationships.

I thank you again for your time, and I thank you, Clarence, for this honor.