Late deacon escaped Vietnam during war, ministered to refugees

Denver Catholic Staff

Deacon Joseph Van Tam Le, 97, passed away peacefully on the evening of July 18, 2019. Deacon Joseph was assigned to Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs in Wheat Ridge throughout his diaconal ministry.

Le Tam Van was born on March 15, 1922 in Nam Dinh, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam to Le Van Ho and Le Thi Su. He was baptized into the Catholic faith soon after his birth, where he took the name Guise or Joseph. As a young man, he attended French Catholic schools. He also attended seminary and high school at St. John the Baptist de La Salle with the intent of entering the priesthood. Eventually, he joined the Vietnam La Salle Christian Brothers and at one point was the Provincial of the Christian Brothers.

In Saigon, he taught a variety of subjects and eventually became the principal of Taberd School. He also travelled to France, England and Italy to study English and French Literature. Afterwards, he went back to Vietnam and continued his teaching career until his departure from Vietnam. Tam was fluent in Vietnamese, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Laotian, and Cambodian.

In 1974, while helping his community prepare to escape from their country, he was arrested by the Viet Cong and subsequently released for no apparent reason other than by the grace of God. Tam escaped Vietnam in a small boat with 66 other individuals on board. After three days at sea, they ended up on a small island in Singapore and were taken captive. He was released three months later and arrived in the United States on July 30, 1975.

On August 21, 1976, Joseph Tam married Terese Tan Thi Hoa at Holy Ghost Parish in Denver. They have four children: Mary, Gerard, Bernadette and Joseph. He then went to work for the State Social Services administering to the needs of the displaced refugees of different countries; predominately, the Vietnamese refugees. The couple began attending St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish where the Vietnamese community in the Denver metro met for worship.

On June 16, 1984, Joseph Tam Van Le was ordained a Deacon at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception by Archbishop James Casey. He was immediately sent to Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs parish to assist with the Vietnamese community that had escaped from the Communist regime in Vietnam and relocated to Denver.

“Deacon Joseph lived his diaconal ministry every day of his life,” said Deacon Joseph Donohoe, Director of Deacon Personnel, “He not only helped those in need, he experienced it in his own life. The deacons are blessed to have called him our brother.”

COMING UP: The shock of forgiveness

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Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.