Opening hearts, minds: How Gratia Plena is reaching a community in need of help

September 28, 2021

The truck in this photo was donated to Gratia Plena in early September 2017 just after Hurricane Harvey. It was immediately used during the Harvey flooding to make a home visit to assess someone with suicidal ideation. It was also used to get to hurricane shelters to minister to people there and to transfer supplies between shelters. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buckle/Gratia Plena)

HOUSTON — When it comes to everyday struggles — the deadlines at work, keeping up with the kids’ schedules, figuring out how to fit everything into a 24-hour period — many people gripe about the stress of it all and go on as best they can. They might pray. They might vent to friends. But they push on, perhaps never realizing that the very act of just getting on with it is indicative of a potentially larger problem, such as stress, anxiety or depression.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 19% of U.S. adults suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder over the last year, including conditions like panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorders and social anxiety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in 2020, nearly 11% of visits to physicians’ offices included a notation of depression on a patient’s chart.
However, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health in our country. That stigma is even more pronounced in minority communities, especially among Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans.
Gratia Plena, a Houston-based nonprofit that offers mental health and spiritual counseling, as well as helping people overcome barriers to treatments, aims to change that. The organization recently began doing outreach to the Vietnamese community, something the organization’s executive director, psychologist Ken Buckle, says is badly needed.
“We certainly try to do outreach to many different communities,” he said. “But the Vietnamese community has been traditionally underserved in the services we provide.”
Some of that is cultural. There is a deep bias against seeking mental health care among Vietnamese, who may see needing that kind of care as shameful. But there’s also a language barrier.
Thanks to the work of Sister Agnes Kimchi Nguyen, O.P., and Sister Anna Pauline Pham, O.P., two Dominican Sisters, the organization has been able to begin the work of overcoming both those challenges and bringing much-needed care to an underserved population. Sister Nguyen has a master’s degree in counseling from the University of St. Thomas and offers counseling services to individuals, couples and families in Vietnamese. Sister Pham offers spiritual direction, something that is a crucial component of Gratia Plena’s care model.
“Most of my clients are concerned about depression,” Sister Nguyen said. “A few may have issues with addiction. And many, because they feel shame, don’t want to come to us until it becomes very serious.”
Originally from Vietnam, Sister Nguyen offers not only her professional counseling but also an understanding of Vietnamese culture. That helps put clients at ease.
“Even after a few sessions, they say they begin to feel better,” she said. “That healing is because of the grace of God.”
If helping clients combat mental illness is important, so too is providing a spiritual foundation. Gratia Plena offers spiritual direction alongside its traditional counseling, and a spiritual component is at the core of its care.
“We integrate our services with faith life,” Buckle said. “And we’ve been very busy since COVID-19. People’s mental health has really suffered over the pandemic.”
“I accompany my clients on their faith journey, helping them to deepen their relationship with God and understand the ways that receive God,” said Sister Pham, who is Vietnamese-American. “It’s about helping people to be attentive to God’s guidance. I teach people how to be attentive and how to be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”
Both sisters recognize that the services they are offering are necessary, and they realize the impact they can have on a client’s life.
“Right now, a lot of people feel stress and tension, and they may not even know they have it,” said Sister Nguyen. “We are able to spread the word and let them know that we understand and that they can come to us for help.”
Gratia Plena already offers services in English, Spanish and Igbo, spoken primarily in Nigeria and Cameroon. Adding the services in Vietnamese allows the organization to increase its reach to Houston’s diverse communities.
“It’s exciting for us to be able to offer services to the Vietnamese community in this way,” Buckle said.
Sister Pham and Sister Nguyen agree, both noting that helping to ease pain and suffering is part of what drew them to their work.
“I love my job very much,” says Sister Nguyen. “It’s so important for us to build up the society and bring out happiness, joy and peace.”
Learn more about Gratia Plena’s services at †