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New Orleans's Cao Fulfills American Dream by Reaching U.S. House
Shaping the Man
If America was a land of dreams in 1975, it seemed more like a phantasm to the bookish Vietnamese boy who stepped off the plane.
His country had collapsed, his family had fractured. As communist forces overran Saigon, his mother took him, a brother and a sister to the airfield and handed them off to an aunt, who shepherded them as far as Guam. The brother stayed with their aunt, and the sister was sent to an American foster family in Florida. Cao went to live with a bachelor uncle in Goshen, Ind.
Cao's father, a South Vietnamese army officer, was arrested by the new regime and shipped to a brutal reeducation camp for seven years. His mother and his five other siblings remained in Vietnam. (A younger sister who stayed behind was later hit by a car and killed; it would be years before most of the family was reunited in the United States.)
"We didn't have a good childhood, let me put it that way," says Thanh Tran, the sister who was raised in Florida and who now lives in Falls Church.
In Goshen, Cao's uncle worked nights at a McDonald's. They lived in a basement apartment, with windows that were barely above the ground. In the winters, snowdrifts blanketed them. The winds, the blowing branches, storms, darkness: They filled the boy with terrors of mythical Vietnamese ghosts.
"It was horrifying," he remembers.
There were no English as a Second Language classes, so school administrators put him in the first grade to learn English with the little kids. He prayed and dreamed of becoming a Catholic priest. He took a paper route to earn money. He made friends and discovered that he liked the snow after all.
After his uncle married, they wound up with other relatives in Houston, with most of his family reunited. Cao graduated from Baylor University with a degree in physics before joining the Society of Jesus in 1990. Better known as the Jesuits, the 468-year-old society requires vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The "absolute requirement" is the "promotion of justice."
Cao was 24 when the Jesuits sent him to work in poor areas of Mexico. It was there, in the fire of youth and faith, that he began to wonder whether the contemplative life was going to have enough action, whether God alone was going to do enough about the world's problems. He moved on to postings for study or work in New Orleans, Montgomery, Ala., and Washington. He did missionary work in Hong Kong and China. He obtained a master's degree at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. He went back to New Orleans, to Loyola University -- founded by the Jesuits -- and lectured. No matter where he went, he struggled with his internal "sea of doubt."
In 1996 he drafted a life-changing course of action: He would leave the seminary but retain his faith. He would have a family. He would seek the social justice the Jesuits called for, but do it through the secular means of politics.
He stepped out of the seminary and faced Kierkegaard's abyss with a practical bent: "The first part of this plan was me getting a job. I was dead broke."