By PAUL A. BARRA
CHARLESTON — They were introduced as people “who have evidenced for us faith in action,” yet they have no intention of slowing the action anytime soon.
Most of the 60 people who gathered for the adult education session at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on July 4 thought that the three-and-a-half years the Purvis family contributed to missionary work in North Vietnam was more than enough. But David and Allison Purvis are going back to Hanoi until December 2000.
“It takes a long time, at least a year and a half, to become effective in this work,” David said. “We are committed to our work.”
The work the Purvis couple does as the only lay missionaries in the north of Vietnam appears interesting enough on the surface. Allison helps develop marketable job skills in youth, while David helps artisans in 12 villages produce and sell traditional crafts. They are improving the lot of a people who have suffered decade after decade of war and deprivation.
It’s the secret world of the communist country missioner that captivates them, however.
“The most life-giving things we do are all unofficial. If the government knew about them, they would not allow us to be involved. We have to stay as low-keyed as possible,” Allison said.
The couple help the children of lepers, who have identification cards from a leprosy camp and few opportunities to survive economically outside the camps where their parents are incarcerated. Allison and David Purvis, who are lay missioners (or associates) with Maryknoll, also use donations they receive to assist poor farmers. They bought a “mechanical buffalo,” for instance, for the communal cultivation of rice fields. They have also assisted in disaster relief efforts and in direct contributions to disabled people. Mostly, though, they try to disburse the funds available to them ($3,000 from the cathedral parish and about $1,000 each year from individuals) to help the people of Vietnam to help themselves. That much, at least, is easy.
“The Vietnamese are very hard-working people and welcoming. The average rural family income is about $200 a year. When we give money to them, we try to do it in an empowering way for them,” David said.
That’s how they became integral parts of their Diocese of Charleston parish in the years before they went overseas as missioners.
“They laid the groundwork for something greater with their social outreach ministry here,” said parishioner Ashley Pennington. “This is a spirit sharing with them because they were close to so many of the parishioners.”
Allison and David Purvis wanted to become close to the people of Vietnam also, but were concerned about the reception they would receive because of all the damage and death occasioned by air strikes against the north by the U.S. Air Force and Navy during the Vietnam War. They found no “residual animosity” in the people; the government is another matter.
The communist regime accepts the presence of Maryknoll as a necessary nuisance, according to the Purvises, but will not permit foreign priests to celebrate Mass publicly, and all foreigners must live in one compound.
“We’re watched all the time. Our staff has to report to the government what we’re doing,” David said.
About 10 percent of the country is Catholic and have been permitted to worship openly and more or less freely for about the last nine years. Still, the Vietnamese Catholics are scrutinized as tightly as foreigners are, and the local Church is operating with one eye constantly over its collective shoulder. That concern transformed into a major disappointment for the South Carolina missioners.
“We found an exciting faith-filled community in Vietnam. The Hanoi cathedral is full every day at its 5:30 a.m. Mass. We had expected to be involved in the Church, but the government won’t allow it, and these people, who are so hospitable, have never welcomed us at the church. They’re afraid the government will try to shut it down,” Allison said.
There are “tons” of what the missioners call seminarians-in-waiting, barred from seminaries by federally imposed quotas. Many of them work with the Maryknoll missionaries, but all the ritualized spirituality of the Purvis’ religion is celebrated within the community of foreigners and within the walls of the foreign compound. The 6,000 foreigners in the nation are not embraced by indigenous faith communities.
Despite the many frustrations imposed by official Vietnam, David and Allison Purvis of Charleston feel a kinship with the people they serve. They adopted a boy, Nicholas Diep Purvis, 20 months ago and are now fluent in the language and have gained the trust of the people they know there, in a place so far away that it is almost on the way back again. They feel the Spirit calling them to complete some of the work they’ve begun.
“Slowly, slowly, conversions take place,” Allison said. “There’s something mysterious about the Vietnamese, something we just do not understand about their sensibilities yet. They’re still calling us.”
Anyone interested in helping them answer that call may send contributions to: Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful, P.O. Box 307, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0307. The memo section of the check should be made out to “Allison and David Purvis M.A.”