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Father Joe & the season of Thanksgiving

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POSTED November 2, 2009 1:02 a.m.

The first time I met Father Joe he was spread eagle in front of my mom’s home with a Lincoln Police officer standing over him.

Mom had been at the sink in her kitchen – which looks directly into neighbor Elsie Silva’s kitchen – when she noticed a strange man walking into Elsie’s backyard. Knowing Elsie wasn’t home, she called the police who happened to have a unit a block away.

The man turned out to be Father Joe – a Vietnamese born Catholic priest who had just started his assignment at St Joseph’s Catholic Church located three doors away. Elsie – who often prepared meals for the priests and had nuns spend the night when they were visiting the parish – had offered to allow Father Joe to keep his moped in her garage. St. Joseph’s had a rather small church and rectory leaving no space for the moped.

Father Joe – who was not wearing his collar and clerical garb – found himself laying face down on the pavement with a gun pointed at him after he was ordered to get away from the moped.

When the police officer was able to sort things out, Father Joe had a good laugh and mom welcomed him to the neighborhood.

It wasn’t the first time that Father Joe was forced to look at the business end of a gun.

The North Vietnamese – after the fall of Saigon – rounded up Father Joe, who was then a child, and the rest of his family and sent them to a re-education camp. Their crime? They were practicing Catholics.

Whenever the calendar turns to Nov. I think of Father Joe.

A couple of months after his welcome reception, I had a chance to profile him in a story for the Thanksgiving season.

Father Joe didn’t equate his secular thanks to just having enough food to eat or being healthy. To him, the American celebration was also about being free of mind and heart.

It is something that hopefully we keep in mind every day but especially in the 23 days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Somewhere between Black Friday, gorging out on turkey and all the trimmings as well as football and parades we’ve allowed the real reason that Thanksgiving exists as a national holiday to get lost in the shuffle.

The pilgrims weren’t celebrating the bounty of the harvest as much as they were their freedom and fortune at being able to shape their own destinies in the wilderness that was then simply known as America.

America has never really been shackled with Old World conventions such as ethnic politics, caste systems, and the assumption that at 10 years old your life is predetermined by how well you do on a test in school. Yes, we have racial issues, class issues, and other challenges but America is a place where you have the freedom to worship as you chose, vote as you wish, live your life as you please. Here in America, personal freedom is closer to being a pure concept than anywhere else on the planet.

Such freedoms come with risks – lots of them. It is the ability to fail – and being allowed to do so – that allows the human spirit to explore new avenues. Father Joe in the old-line communist world wasn’t allowed to explore Catholic teachings – or any other religions for that matter – without being treated as being defective hence the re-education center.

There are many lands where thinking and worshipping as you wish is a considered a crime against the state.

Thanksgiving really should be treated as a secular celebration of our good fortune to live in a nation where the concept of personal freedom and choice burns brightest. America is far from perfect but it has to be that way. The more all “needs” are taken care of by secular powers the more independent thought and choice is diminished.

Some would argue the goal of cleansing the land of pain, misery, and suffering via government edicts is a nobler goal than individual choice. After all, wouldn’t we all be happier if all of our basic needs were guaranteed?

It is the question the first pilgrims asked themselves before they set sail for a new home. There wasn’t a famine ravishing England at the time.

The government, though, working in concert with England’s official church was making life hell for those who chose to worship or think differently.

America is about feeding the soul and spirit and not simply the stomach.

One day hopefully those are no longer mutually exclusive goals.

It can’t happen, though, if we are not free to worship and to think as free people.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail

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