Vietnamese Resistance

God and government in New Orleans

When the Bring Back New Orleans Commission met in November 2005 to discuss its far-off plans to gradually rebuild and repopulate the flooded city, the Rev. Luke Nguyen rose to talk about the thousands of Vietnamese who had fled his neighborhood in August. To the panel’s surprise, he announced, “We are already back.”

Nguyen, known as Father Luke, is one of the pastors at Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, the focal point of a small East New Orleans area called Village de L’Est. In what the Los Angeles Times has called “a model of self-help and recovery,” the Katrina-ravaged district has transformed itself back into a livable neighborhood. Its rapid development stands in contrast to the glacial pace of rebuilding in the surrounding areas.

“We were the first to come back into play,” Father Luke says, adding that pews are newly full as well. “We sent out word: Come back! Come back!”

The Rev. Vien Nguyen, another Mary’s pastor, proved himself an able shepherd after the storm by traveling through Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas in the church’s van, summoning his flock back to the neighborhood. In October 2005, church leaders pushed hard for power and water service, ignoring warnings that coming back was premature and unsafe. This was before the Bring Back New Orleans Commission had met to lay down a plan of action for the city.

Father Luke attributes the ongoing recovery to a tight-knit, connected culture, while some members of the heavily Catholic community say their knack for rebuilding may be rooted in the past. Many first came to New Orleans as refugees in 1975, then as now impatient to rebuild.

The community is still struggling to be heard: The parish has been battling the Federal Emergency Management Agency over its trailers and the city over a planned landfill two miles away. But as of October 2006, Father Luke says, 80 percent of the community of 7,000 had come home and 95 percent of their businesses were up and running. “Our request,” Nguyen told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in September, “is for the government to get out of the way.”

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