A place where all religions heal

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Patients wait in line to receive free meals at a charity clinic founded by a priest and kept alive by caregivers of various creeds in the Mekong Delta's Kien Giang Province. Photo by Tien Trinh

It has been a long time since priest Nguyen Duc Thinh entertained the patients at the charity clinic he founded behind his church in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang.

The 78-year-old shepherd is sick in bed, but although the patients are lacking his driven-laughter, they are still well served every day by doctors and helpers from all religious paths, including Protestants, Buddhists and followers of the indigenous southern Vietnamese religions Cao Dai and Hoa Hoa, the third and fourth largest religions in Vietnam respectively after Buddhism and Christianity.

Cao Dai is a syncretic religion combining the teachings of Buddha, Lao Zi, Confucius and Jesus Christ, while Hoa Hao is based on Buddhism.

The clinic, which is located at the back of a church in Tan Hiep District, was a five-compartment house with leaf roof and walls when it was built more than 20 years ago.

Word of mouth quickly brought a lot of patients and the district Red Cross in provided support to build it up and equip it with 70 sickbeds in 1991.

The house is usually filled with more than 200 patients staying for treatment at a time.

Most of the patients suffer from chronic diseases and are either poor or have emptied their pockets on treatment elsewhere.

The clinic's main income comes from charging patients up to 10 percent of what they would have paid at hospitals.

Besides free examinations and herbs, poor patients also receive food and money for travel.

There's also a stage and instruments used in musical performances "to help patients relax and laugh to forget the pain, the misery and quicken recovery," a leaflet for the clinic says.

Many patients are still telling stories of the priest's magic shows.

Thinh, who also practices medicine, said when he came up with the clinic idea and approached local doctors, they were all eager to join but were wary of their religious differences.

It's hard to run a charity in the name of religion when the members' paths do not cross, he said.

But Thinh managed to persuade them by saying that the charity was not set up to promote any church or pagoda.

"The ultimate goal was to help sick people, irrespective of religions or social status," he said.

The clinic now receives help from around 40 doctors and nurses, with both western and traditional medicine training.

They receive around VND1 million (US$47) a month for meals and travel expenses. Many even manage to use some of the money to help poorer patients buy food and transport.


Herbs are arranged into portions for a patient at a charity clinic in Kien Giang Province. Photo by Tien Trinh

Trinh Duy Thang from Hanoi completed his doctorate degree ten years ago and he traveled straight to the clinic after a friend told him about it.

He's been working there ever since.

"People really need doctors here," he said, after a morning examining more than a hundred patients.

Thang, who is a Christian, said many people have called him crazy for turning down offers of higher payment, but that would mean all the other helpers at Thinh's are insane too.

He said years of working at the clinic confirmed that he made the right decision.

He said he has seen patients coming in "ultimate misery," those who have lost all hope....only to be cured eventually.

Nguyen Van Dam, an 80-year-old Hoa Hao follower, left his home in the nearby An Giang Province eight years ago to help at the clinic's kitchen.

"I will do this until I am too weak to do anything," Dam said.

He said vendors back in An Giang donate fruit and vegetables shipments every day.

Thinh said love has "glued" people together in the community project. "We just cannot abandon each other."

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