By Paul Totah
It took a war to separate two brothers. More than four decades later, it took a pandemic to bring them together.
You will find the siblings, Fathers Chi Ngo, SJ, and Chu Ngo, SJ, both working at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos, California, where Chi serves as executive director and Chu as a retreat director and a supervisor of various remodeling projects.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Chi invited his brother to join him in Los Altos. Chu, at the time, was working at the St. Francis Xavier Chapel Japanese Catholic Center in Los Angeles. When that center went into lockdown mode, Chu took his brother up on the offer.
“This is the first time in 30 years we have lived together,” said Chi. “It’s wonderful having my older brother, someone I’ve looked up to for years, in the same house helping with so many projects.”
For both men, their journey to the Jesuits was inspired by the hardships they suffered during and after the Vietnam War and by their faith—a faith later deepened thanks to retreats led by Father Julian Elizalde, SJ, a Basque Jesuit who served as a missionary in Vietnam before working with refugee communities in the U.S. after the war ended.
Chu was the seventh and Chi the youngest of 11 children born to Chuan Ngo and Ham Nguyen. After the war, their father, Chuan, because he had served as a police chief in several South Vietnamese cities, was imprisoned in a reeducation camp, where he died in 1979.
Before that, Chi had left Saigon in April 1975 with some family members in the care of an older sister and her husband, who had worked for the U.S. embassy. After some time in Guam, the group moved to an Army relocation camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, before living with a sponsor family in Wilmington, North Carolina. Four years later, when Chi turned 14, he and his relatives moved to Pasadena, California.
Chu’s journey was more treacherous than his brother’s. When the war ended and his father was arrested, the government forced Chu, his remaining siblings and their mother to work in a jungle encampment in the New Economic Zones program with the task of transforming it into farmland.
“There was no way for us to have a good life in the jungle,” said Chu. “Our future there was bleak, as we had to grow our own crops to survive, and there was no infrastructure.”
After learning of his father’s death, the family decided to escape from Vietnam. Chu and his siblings retrofitted a river boat, filled it with 25 of their extended family and made their way to the open ocean in search of a refugee camp in Malaysia. Their mother stayed behind in case her children were captured, believing that she somehow could arrange their rescue.
Shortly after their departure, Chu and the others on the boat were attacked by Thai pirates, who seized all their food, water and diesel fuel, leaving them adrift. Two days later, another small boat carrying refugees found them, shared some provisions and led them to Malaysia, where the group stayed for nine months before their family in the U.S. arranged for them to join them in Pasadena.
In 1990, their mother became the last of the family to immigrate to the U.S., where she lived until her death in 1998.
While in college in the 1980s, Chi grew depressed the more his past and the death of his father caught up with him. “I was too busy in high school to think about all of that, but my façade shattered as I grew older, and the memory of all that loss took a toll on me. I felt that life held no meaning with all the suffering in the world, and I wanted to find an escape.”
Instead of an escape, he found a way forward thanks to a retreat led by Fr. Elizalde, who was traveling around the U.S. ministering to places where Vietnamese refugees had settled. “The experience of that retreat shook me to the core and changed my life,” said Chi. That same priest also invited Chu to consider becoming a Jesuit, though Chu felt, at the time, that his lack of education would be a roadblock.
After graduating with his degree in civil engineering, Chi joined the Society of Jesus in 1989. In the meantime, Chu worked as a carpenter and studied at a community college in Denver. In 1988, he worked with Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong and then in the Philippines, where, in 1992, he decided to enter a monastery as a Trappist monk.
Chi, now a Jesuit scholastic, visited his brother in the Philippines. “We spent a few days together, and he eventually confided in me that while he loved the silence of contemplative life, he missed being in active ministry with the poor. That’s when I told him that Jesuits do both, as we are contemplatives in action. We have a deep relationship with God but are also engaged in the world. That led, finally, to Chu joining the Society.”
Over the years, Chi worked at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, at the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange County and for the province in Los Gatos, where he served as the director of formation—the period of time between the novitiate and final vows. In 2013, he began working at the Jesuit Retreat Center before becoming its executive director five years later.
Chu, after entering the Society in 1993, first planned to become a Jesuit brother. “I still wasn’t sure I could handle all the studies, but my superiors convinced me, finally, that I could succeed in college classes to prepare for the priesthood.”
Chu returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1999. “I felt so joyful being there, as Vietnam will always be my home. I never really wanted to leave, and I try to return as often as I can to lead retreats.”
In 2010, after serving as a retreat director in a suburb of Saigon for three years, Chu moved to San Jose, California, where he worked at Most Holy Trinity Church, but he once again heeded the call to return to Vietnam and to the Philippines, where he lived for more than three years.
Still drawn by the call to active service to the poor, he later worked at Sacramento’s Loaves and Fishes, which offers food and a host of services to the unhoused. “When I was a young man, I ran away from home twice, as I felt bullied by my older brothers,” said Chu. “That experience led to my ministry with homeless people. When I see people suffering from any kind of poverty, I feel a kinship with them and am drawn to engage them in conversation. That nourishes my soul and tells me that’s what I’m here for.”
While leading a retreat near Santa Cruz recently, Chu took some time off to watch farm laborers pick strawberries. “They were working hard, bending down constantly. The more I watched them working in the cold morning and, later, suffering under the hot noon sun, the more love I felt for their humanity.”
From his home base now at the Jesuit Retreat House, when he isn’t supervising construction projects, Chu still travels around the U.S. and abroad, offering spiritual direction and leading retreats for Vietnamese Catholics and members of the Vietnamese American community. “This nourishes my soul, too, as I learn so much and see myself in others who are on a spiritual journey.”
Chi has also returned to Vietnam several times starting in 1995. “I visited my father’s grave for the first time and toured the country. It was an exhilarating and eye-opening experience, and that journey allowed me to renew my connections and reconcile with my past.”
For both men, the Society is now their home. “I’m grateful for my vocation as a Jesuit,” said Chi. “This has been such a fruitful experience for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
His work directing a retreat center—one that will celebrate its centennial in 2025—can be daunting. “This place is big, expensive to run and old, with lots of deferred maintenance,” added Chi. “That’s where my brother’s help has been invaluable. I worried often during the COVID years, but God has provided. We are in a good place, not because of what we do, but because of the generosity of so many. And I feel so gratified to work side-by-side now with my brother.”