I am Fr. Gerald Kumar Balavendra CMF from India and I was born on August 9, 1975. People call me Gerry and they say I am tall, have an angelic smile, and am soft-spoken. I speak three languages: English, Vietnamese, and Kannada. I am familiar with other languages spoken in southern part of my country, but I know best the three languages mentioned earlier. I am working as an Associate Pastor in San Gabriel Mission Church, Los Angeles, CA, USA.
There are over 19.9 million Catholics in India, which represents around 1.6% of the total population. The Catholic Church is the largest Christian church within India, and Christians are about 2.3% of the population. I come from a large family of seven brothers and sisters, including myself. One of my sisters joined the Congregation of Sisters of St. Ann in Bengaluru, India. I grew up in a small village with one Catholic Church called Sacred Heart Church in Silvepura.
With the completion of my studies at Sacred Heart School, my cousin and I decided to continue our education at a university. To get to the university, we needed to travel by bus. While waiting for the bus, we heard someone talking about a Claretian priest who had come to recruit young men into the seminary. So, my cousin and I met the Claretian priest at the rectory of the parish priest. The conversation with the Claretian priest in time turned to a discussion about why my cousin and I wanted to become priests and neither of us could give clear answers. After a short interview he accepted us into the seminary. The turning point in my life and that of my cousin was waiting for the bus that never arrived which was supposed take us to the university, but instead, God sent a Claretian priest to take my cousin and I to seminary. For me this is an unforgettable event of my life and how Marvelous God changes our lives.
My time in the seminary was a time for deep reflection about why I should become a priest. It was a process of discernment on how to lead my life as a religious. My fourteen years of formation for the priesthood was completed in the year 2005. I was ordained to priesthood on January 5, 2005. Soon after my ordination, I was chosen to be sent to Vietnam as an underground missionary. All the documents for my missionary journey to Vietnam was supported by St. Claret School and were prepared by the provincial secretary. On the day of my departure to mission work, I encountered difficulty in my hometown airport. The immigration official questioned my documents and asked me why I had not memorized my school’s telephone number. The official became suspicious and detained me for further questioning. I was shaking and felt like I was going to be caught. While waiting, another official [like my guardian angel] came and asked me why I was being detained. I explained what had happened, and the official reviewed my documents and told the official who had detained me not to bother me anymore because all the documents I had were in order and he permitted me to enter the boarding gate. For me, that officer was an Angel sent especially by God to protect me and guide me safely to Vietnam.
The communist government of Vietnam is antagonistic toward foreign priests. Missionary activities are spied upon and controlled by the communist government. I arrived in Vietnam as a tourist, but later I was able to get a visa for three months. I began to experience difficulties, especially with the food, language and culture. The Vietnamese language is so unique and it’s hard to learn. It is totally a new language and no resemblance to an Indian language, not even a word. The food is tasteless because no spices are added at all. It was very difficult to use chopsticks and rice cups in the beginning. One of the saddest and most unacceptable things that happened to me was that I had to hide my priestly identity. I could not celebrate the Holy Eucharist openly in any of the parish churches.
Every three months I had to renew my visa for nearly five years and by God’s providence I was able to get work-permit visa in a company. This company belonged to a Catholic family. So, the rest of my years I was so grateful to the family because I had no problem with my visa. My experiences were so marvelous and full of blessings. I could go on and write many beautiful experiences that I had in my eleven years, but I am just stopping here
In 2016, I got transferred to the Philippines. In the Philippines, I had the opportunity to study and serve as a local administrator for the Claretians. In 2017, I got permission to study at ICLA [Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia] for a Degree in Missiology but by the end of first semester, I received a phone call from my Superior General in Rome asking me to serve the Vietnamese community at San Gabriel Mission, USA. And here I am at San Gabriel Mission working as an Associate Pastor and priest in charge of the Vietnamese community.
At the Mission, I enjoy the closeness and support of my fellow Claretians. Through the well-motivated Pastor that I have at the Mission, our principal goal is to create a strong sense of community among all the priests and parishioners.
Could you be called to a vocation to serve the people of God as a missionary? Check out www.myclaret.org to find out more and contact a vocation director who will be happy to accompany you on your discernment journey.