Local deacon recounts journey from homelessness to nuclear scientist

WAKEFIELD -- Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Deacon Tam Tran says he did not recognize God walking with him throughout much of his life. Born into a Buddhist family in Vietnam, he came to the Catholic faith after years of hardship and worldly success, and later, after a near-death experience, discerned a call to the permanent diaconate.

Deacon Tran, who is a deacon at St. Theresa Parish in North Reading, shared the story of his life in a presentation at St. Florence Church on Aug. 24. Dozens came to hear about his childhood in Vietnam, his career as a scientist, and his eventual conversion to Catholicism and ordination to the permanent diaconate.

He began speaking about the disciples who failed to recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Like them, Deacon Tran did not realize that Jesus had been walking with him until later in his journey.

"If Jesus could walk with me, a poor Buddhist boy, I think he could walk with anybody. In fact, he walks with everybody, we just don't recognize him," Deacon Tran said.

His early life was marked with great suffering. As an infant, he and his brother both had typhoid fever, to which his brother succumbed. When he was six, his father, grandmother, and baby sister all died within a few months of each other. His mother, who sold lottery tickets for a living, could not afford to feed all six of her children. Since Deacon Tran was the oldest, she told him to find food and shelter from their neighbors or relatives.

As a child, Deacon Tran had personal reasons to hate the Catholic Church. He tried to enter an orphanage, where he could have received shelter and education, but the nuns who ran it would not take him in because he still had a living parent. Later, when his family moved, a priest denied his mother a piece of land from the government because they were Buddhists. Deacon Tran retaliated against the local church by breaking their windows and poking a beehive when people came out of the building.

His first jobs included carrying buckets of water, shepherding water buffalo, and shining shoes. He learned to read by peeking into a school window to observe lessons. He was finally able to go to school himself when an aunt took in his family.

Deacon Tran said that sometimes being poor is an advantage, because it gives an incentive to work harder and teaches resourcefulness.

"Poor is a blessing. And poor is opportunity, because the only way to go is up," he said.

While most men his age were fighting -- and dying -- in the Vietnam War, Deacon Tran received permission to travel to the U.S. to study chemical engineering. He started attending the University of Michigan in 1971. When he was unable to pay the cost, he sought out the most affordable school in the country, which at the time was the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. At his dean's suggestion, he added nuclear engineering to his studies, doubling the normal courseload and taking classes at Harvard and MIT.

He married his wife, Thom, and went on to patent several inventions, including a water recycling system for the International Space Station, kidney dialysis membrane, and more efficient car parts. In 1995-1996, he became the first Asian American to be elected national president of the American Electroplaters and Surface Finishers Society.

Riding at the top of his career, Deacon Tran had nothing to gain from becoming Catholic. But a few things pushed him toward the Church. One was his ownership of some water from Lourdes, which never turned cloudy despite being exposed to open air for years, defying scientific explanation. He also learned about the Vietnamese martyrs, about 130,000 people killed by the Vietnamese emperor in 1833 for refusing to renounce their faith. Finally, he learned how many great scientists had been Catholic. In 1997, he was received into the Catholic Church.

He had a near-death experience, and a seemingly miraculous recovery, when he had a heart attack in 2008. He was unconscious for five days, and his wife asked everyone they knew to pray for him. During that time, Deacon Tran said he could see light, feel the presence of angels, and hear music that he had never heard before. When he woke, he was not sure if what he had experienced was real or imagined, but after years of research about angels, he concluded it must have been real. After that, he vowed to do whatever God wanted him to do, and he felt the call to become a permanent deacon.

When Deacon Tran joined the permanent diaconate in 2014, he was assigned to serve at St. Theresa Parish and as a chaplain at Umass Boston. As he was struggling to attract students to ministry and catechesis, he thought of the missionaries in Vietnam, who had fed the people first and baptized them later. Inspired by that "business model," he decided to offer free courses -- one about investing and another about "how to get along with jerks." When he began each course, he would introduce himself and explain what a Catholic deacon is. This allowed him to mix theology with his subject matter.

In his presentation, Deacon Tran shared his ideas and plans for various projects, including ways to raise money for campus ministries, as well as scientific ventures, like replacing coal with sorghum as a source of fuel. He shared that he is working on writing three books: one about politics, one a memoir about his life, and one about the relationship between faith and science.

Deacon Tran encouraged his audience to "be humble and fruitful."

"God chooses ordinary people to do extraordinary things," he said.

He ended his presentation by talking about the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30.

"If you follow Jesus, he will make you a miracle worker. Miracles happen every day. Change your perception of what a miracle is, and you will see them all around you. The moment you are ready to quit is usually the moment right before the miracle happens, so don't give up," Deacon Tran said.

Stephanie Oliveira, a Umass Boston student, attended Deacon Tran's talk and stayed afterwards to talk with him and his wife.

"I think young adults like me need to look up to people like him and see the face of God in him and try to do the same thing that he is doing, which is using his gifts and his talents to serve God and to serve community," Oliveira told The Pilot.