His Vietnamese birth name means “one with a promising future.”
But with hunger, religious persecution and two imprisonments by Vietnam’s anti-clerical communist regime riddling the first 36 years of his life, Christian Brother John Mai couldn’t help but occasionally see his moniker as a cruel joke.
Still, the energetic Brother John – known at Christian Brothers School for his joyful singing voice and a smile that employs every muscle in his face – has never had time for pity parties. Life is too precious and the Father’s love too abundant. Just look around you.
“God rescued me from the communists and brought me to live in a peaceful and free country,” said Brother John, 63, who immigrated to the United States in 1986 and for the past year has served as the City Park school’s chapel-time moderator, morning greeter, guitar-playing song leader and multi-media “go-to” man.
“When I came to America, I was so impressed to see how people are very nice and have very strong faith – that’s why God blesses America,” Brother John said. “Whenever I heard Mr. President of the USA give a speech, at the end of his speech he always says, ‘God bless you and our country!’ At the beginning of the football game, the graduation ceremony, a meeting – even at the public school board – I see people always saying a prayer first. That makes me so impressed!”
Early years in North Vietnam
Born in 1949, Brother John spent his first five years in the countryside outside of Nam Dinh, North Vietnam. His father, a village clerk and a blacksmith who made knives and other farm tools for the rice-growing region, gathered up his family when the communists expelled the French army in 1954, joining the southward exodus of 1 million civilians.
“We escaped from North to South Vietnam because at that time, during the war – the French war – my father trained the French army, and the communists wanted to kill my father,” Brother John explained, recalling how he and his siblings were able to stroll through the communist checkpoint by hiding the family’s life savings in the handles of percussion instruments.
They settled in Nha Trang City, South Vietnam, where democracy still thrived and Catholics could worship freely. Brother John’s father supported the family by turning old cannon shafts into flower vases and enrolled Brother John in a Christian Brothers-operated school. The third grader instantly felt drawn to religious life, observing that the brothers always “seemed so happy” and taught their pupils so well.
“And I also liked the robe that the Christian Brothers wore,” Brother John recalls. “In Vietnam (the brothers) wear this robe all the time. The robe attracted me. I wanted to become a brother. I wanted to educate the children.”
While boys were allowed begin their formation into the consecrated life as early as the sixth grade, Brother John’s parents were reluctant to give their blessing, urging him instead to pursue the priesthood. After five years of prayer and much nagging, Brother John entered the seminary at 16 and took his first vows in 1972. A year into his first teaching assignment at a Christian Brothers high school near Saigon, South Vietnam fell to the communists.
“The communists took over all the private schools and told the brothers they couldn’t wear the robe anymore,” said Brother John, who worked as a blacksmith and tinsmith, and taught guitar, drums and keyboards.
“It was a very difficult time, a very difficult situation – very, very, very poor,” said Brother John, who in 1979 made the first of 14 attempts to escape his homeland. He was continually warned that he would be jailed if he kept teaching music.
“Living in Vietnam as a brother didn’t make sense for us anymore because our charism is to educate the children,” he said, recalling how one foiled attempt to escape by boat to the Philippines resulted in a beating and several weeks of incarceration with 120 prisoners. Their small, ventless cell was equipped with a single toilet and received twice-a-day rations of boiled rice and salt.
“We did not have enough room to lie down,” Brother John said. “Every night I could only sleep one or two hours. It was terrible, terrible.”
“Before my country collapsed I read some books about Hitler in Germany,” he continued. “They killed the Jewish people in the concentration camps. When you read (about an historical event), you don’t have the true feeling. But when I was in prison, I saw what happened in Germany was happening in my country.”
He “prayed hard” for his release and was granted it only after his father paid off a communist official.
Imprisoned a second time
Brother John boldly continued to teach music and plot ways to escape after the death of his mother and being worn down by the random house checks of the communist authorities. He was arrested a second time in 1984, when communist forces, wielding AK-47s, came upon his group of 24 escapees as they hid out on a remote island while awaiting a rescue boat to the Philippines.
“We were afraid to die. We said, ‘Stop shooting!’” recalled Brother John, who spent five months in prison before being sent to a “re-education camp” in the jungle. Inmates were forced to plant sugarcane, corn, sweet potatoes and peanuts in Vietnam’s 110-degree heat.
“They work the prisoners very hard, but I was lucky,” he said, explaining that the camp’s operators recognized him as a popular wedding musician.
“They asked me to form a rock-and-roll band – to go perform outside the prison to get money for (the government),” he laughed. “Two prisoners played guitar, a guard played drums and another one played bass. We would go to different villages and perform at night.”
Escape at last
Gaining his captors’ trust over the ensuing year, Brother John hatched his 14th and final attempt at escape during an unsupervised visit to his hometown. This time, he successfully boarded a tiny fishing boat with his father and 40 others in June 1985.
“I prayed, ‘God, please help me to escape from Vietnam with my father, and I will dedicate my whole life to serving you.’ I prayed, prayed, prayed a lot,” he said. “We had to stay below in the fishing cabinet. We were sick the whole week. We threw up everything.”
After five days of storms that nearly capsized the wooden vessel, the refugees were rescued by the “Norman Lady” – a Liberian freighter operated by a crew from Norway – and sent to resettlement camps in Japan. Less than a year later, Brother John and his father were on their way to Lafayette, La., the home of Brother John’s two surviving siblings.
At Christian Brothers School
One glaring problem remained: The Vietnamese Christian Brothers had expelled Brother John from their community in 1983, worried that his record as a multiple escapee would endanger those brothers who were trying to peacefully co-exist with the communists.
“For a year and a half I wrote many letters to Vietnam, because the brothers in Japan and in America didn’t understand why the brothers in Vietnam refused me,” said Brother John, who was welcomed back as a postulant in 1986.
The ensuing years had him studying English, math, music and computer science at Tulane and Loyola universities, and at his Lasallian alma mater of Lewis University in Chicago. His educational ministry, which has included teaching computer science at De La Salle High in New Orleans, Remington College in Lafayette and Lafayette High, returned to New Orleans last summer, landing him at Christian Brothers School.
“I’m so glad to come back to New Orleans,” said Brother John of his assignment living in community with four brothers on the school’s second floor. “(City Park) is the best place I’ve ever lived, especially in the evening. It is very calm and very peaceful.”
Brother John has returned to Vietnam about 10 times since his escape to deliver medicine, candy and clothes to the poor, and to teach the Carmelite nuns in his hometown ways multi-media can be used as a prayer aid. During his students’ weekly chapel visits, Brother John projects the readings and responses onto a big screen and sets them to music, leading them on guitar, drums or his latest instrument, the flute.
“For the Gospel I highlight Jesus’ words in red; the blue color is what Mary says,” he explained. “I ask different students to read a different part. It’s like a play, so everyone is involved.”
The students are so polite, so gentle,” Brother John added. “Everybody at CBS is so nice, helping each other very well like a family and working with enthusiasm!”
Brother John operates the Christian Brothers’ New Orleans-Santa Fe District website, www.cbnosf.org. Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SIDEBAR: Brother John: After despair, freedom arrives with rescue on the high seas
Christian Brother John Mai recalls the day in June 1985 that he, his father and 40 of their countrymen gained their freedom. After five days of relentless storms on the South China Sea while ensconced in a small fishing boat, the Vietnamese refugees spotted two approaching ships and tried to wave them down with a T-shirt. At first, neither vessel seemed to heed the distress signal. Brother John recounts what happened next…
Both ships left. We were so discouraged, because we had prayed a lot. Why did God not save us? We are dying. We are starving. Nobody (on the escape boat) wanted to talk anymore. We were so weak. We sat down in the fishing cabinets. We didn’t want to pray anymore. We were so tired and so discouraged.
A half-hour later, two boys, 9 or 10 years old, stood up and shouted: “The red ship has come back! The red ship has come back!” Nobody believed them. I thought, “Maybe they want to save us!” I saw the red ship come toward our boat. But then I was afraid about the red color, because when I was in Vietnam, I had listened to the Voice of America broadcasts on the BBC. They said that Russian ships would pick up boat people and (return them) to Vietnam. I told my students, “Let me find out what country the ship is from.” We didn’t see any Russian letters. I saw the name – “Norman Lady” – written in English. I felt calmer.
The ship looked like an island to us, (whereas) our boat was so tiny, just like a dot on the ocean. The Norman Lady sailors put down a net and a ladder. They used a megaphone. They wanted to meet with one person from our boat who could speak English. I felt calmer, because they didn’t speak in Russian. I told my people, “Stay on the boat. Let me talk to them.” They asked me if I had a firearm. I said, “No, we are Vietnamese Catholic people trying to escape from Vietnam for freedom. Please save us.” The captain agreed to save our group.
We were so happy! I held my father. We survived! We prayed that night. I gathered all my group and we said the rosary and thanked God for saving our lives.