The church can be used as way to mobilize a community, even a once-politically apathetic group such as the Vietnamese in New Orleans, a priest argued at a Chaplain’s Tea on Wednesday.

“You can work elsewhere to make a living, or you can work with us [the parish] and make history,” said Father Vien Nguyen of Mary Queen Vietnam Church.

Before 25 students and faculty members at St. Thomas More’s Golden Center, Nguyen said his parish’s effort to rally the city’s Vietnamese community after Hurricane Katrina led to a legal battle with the city over a landfill that would have been constructed 1.2 miles south of the church. And because Nguyen’s church members came together through Catholicism, he argued, they ultimately won.

Nguyen’s parish of 6,000 Vietnamese and South Asian Catholics evacuated their church in summer 2005 after the hurricane ripped off its roof. But several older members of the parish called him weeks later asking him to help speed up their return, he said. Some parishioners even tried to drive back to their homes before the government decided the zone was safe.

“In previous Vietnamese migrations from the north to the south and then to the U.S., there was a war in between, so for most of my older people, Katrina was an inconvenience more than any thing else because the government wouldn’t allow us to return,” Nguyen said.

He said his parish — whose members had previously preferred to “keep a low profile” — was compelled to come back and take action because New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin made an executive order in Feburary 2006 to build the landfill as part of the city’s post-Katrina restructuring efforts.

When they learned of the landfill, the elders of the neighborhood were convinced that it would deter younger families from returning to the area, he added. The residents feared that if the predominantly Catholic community lost members, the church would eventually no longer exist.

“Our fight was survival,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said the parish community used the church as its meeting place to organize protests and devise tactics to prevent the construction of the landfill. Still, as they mobilized, Nguyen said he once questioned the role of his Church in the battle because of “separation between church and state.” He eventually decided that his church “was not doing anything new.”

“Think of the southern Baptists in the civil rights movement and the Italian and Irish immigrants. They all gathered around the church,” Nguyen said. “It’s in our history — the priests were deeply involved in the social lives of the people.”

After six months of fighting against the landfill, the city court finally suspended its construction in August 2006.

Xuan Nguyen ’10— a Vietnamese American Studies major who coordinated the tea as part of her senior thesis — said she was impressed by the story when she first learned of it during her time in New Orleans in summer 2008. The next summer, she met and invited him to Yale.

Assistant Chaplain Katie Byrnes said after the Tea that Nguyen was “extraordinary” in his effort to use religion to rebuild a society torn apart by natural disaster.

“We always talk about Catholic social teaching, but to really see a community make social accomplishments for themselves is amazing,” she said.

Nguyen’s church is currently building a charter school and urban farm for New Orleans residents, he said.