GREENVILLE—Franciscan Father David Phan made a promise to God at the age of 16. He was on a crowded boat with dozens of other refugees from his home country of Vietnam, suffering from seasickness and thirst.
It was 1985, and he was fleeing the poverty and persecution at home to seek a better life.
“I promised God that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to serve His holy will,” he said.
Years later, after studying and working in the United States long enough to bring his entire family here from Vietnam, Father Phan gave away all his worldly possessions and kept that promise by joining the Franciscans.
He was ordained in 2010 and served in a New Jersey parish before coming to South Carolina in 2011. Currently, he is parochial vicar at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenville, and coordinates Vietnamese ministry from his office at Greenville’s Our Lady of the Rosary Church, home to one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the diocese. Each weekend he travels to Rock Hill, Myrtle Beach, Columbia and other cities as needed to celebrate Mass in Vietnamese.
The hours are long and he puts many miles on his small car, but the work is worth it, he says, because he is sharing the love of God with people who need it.
“I asked to come here and work with the Vietnamese because I knew there was a need,” he said. “I have a passion for working with immigrants because I know they have struggled like I did with language barriers, with understanding how to integrate into American culture while still having a Vietnamese identity, and they still want to continue to worship in their own language.”
Faith has always been central in his life. Before he was born, his parents relocated to South Vietnam to escape persecution against Catholics in the north. He was the second of 10 children raised in a devout home, and said he first thought about becoming a priest while still in grade school.
That dream was put on hold for decades. The Phan family, like millions of others in South Vietnam, faced hardships and poverty after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Communist workers at one point forced them from their home, took their belongings and sent his father to prison.
One thing symbolized all they had lost: “My mom and dad had a cassette player they would play all the time, and one of the men stole it and used it at his house,” he said. “I was 12 or 13 at the time and when I was walking to church, I would pass his house and hear him playing music on that cassette player. I decided then I would like to escape somewhere I could find peace.”
By 1985, his mother knew he wanted to leave the country, but begged him not to go because she feared he wouldn’t survive. He left with eight others and swam to a boat. On the harrowing journey to a Philippine refugee camp that followed, he made his commitment to God.
Father Phan’s older brother also escaped, and he eventually followed him to Oregon, where Catholic Charities placed the teen, who spoke no English, in foster care. He went from home to home during those years, sometimes living with families who mistreated him. There was violence: one of his foster siblings killed their foster mother.
Despite the difficulties, Father Phan learned English, completed high school and started living on his own at age 18.
Hard work brought success. He completed an engineering degree at the University of Oregon, found a well-paying job with an electronics company, and then worked as a stock trader for several years. In 1993, he and his brother brought his parents and eight siblings to live in the United States.
Father Phan spent seven years helping them settle and reconnecting with them after so many years apart.
“I had two brothers who hadn’t even been born when I left the country,” he said. “I wanted to get to know them and help my family to assimilate, to learn what is good about American culture and also keep their Vietnamese culture and integrity.”
By 2000, Father Phan knew his family was doing well and it was time to keep that promise he made so long ago. He joined the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province in New York City because of the order’s commitment to help the poor, immigrants and other marginalized people.
He joined three other siblings in religious life: two became religious sisters and a brother is a Franciscan priest in California.
This priest who overcame so many challenges said he wants to stay in South Carolina as long as he is needed, to strengthen the Vietnamese community and help others grow in their faith.
“In ministry, you have to love the people you work with, to step in their shoes and walk with them,” he said. “That’s what serving is about.”