Martin Huynh Ngo, SJ
Highlights of Jesuit Formation:
- Studied and performed for three years at the Second City Training Center while doing first studies in Chicago.
- Accompanied young adults for MAGIS and World Youth Day 2013 in Brazil.
- Interned for a summer for the Jesuit Curia’s communication team in Rome just when Pope Francis happened to “drop in” on his fellow Jesuit brothers for an impromptu visit.
Will serve in campus ministry at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Martin H. Ngo, SJ’s parents were “boat people” who escaped from the Vietnam War in 1980. After a year of moving from one refugee camp to another, they were sent to the United States. He and his two younger sisters were born shortly thereafter in Orange County, California. At five years old, a Jesuit friend of the family told him endearingly, “You will become a priest.” The prediction would not come true without the struggle of discernment. At 16, he encountered God on a Kairos retreat led by Jesuit regents. Ten years later, he applied to the California Province Jesuits. During that decade, Martin studied computer science and performing arts at University of California, Irvine; worked for a software company in Mission Viejo; and became a systems analyst for the City of Los Angeles under Antonio Villaraigosa who was mayor at the time. All the while, Martin nurtured his love for acting and joined Lifebook Acting Academy in Hollywood under the mentorship of a great teacher, Allen Levin. In 2009, two years into the nation’s financial crisis, he tendered his resignation letter at City Hall after receiving a call from the vocation director notifying him of his acceptance into the Society of Jesus. As a novice, he did his short experiment in Jamaica at St. Anne’s Primary in Kingston. He worked in production for Christus Ministries during his first year as a regent. The remaining two years of his regency, he taught digital media arts and ran student life activities at Verbum Dei High School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Obtaining a master’s degree in digital storytelling from Loyola University Chicago enabled him to assist in content creation for many works, including The Jesuit Post, a website offering a Jesuit, Catholic perspective on the contemporary world, and donor videos for prison ministry programs. Martin earned a Master of Divinity degree and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and served as a deacon at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston. His first assignment as a priest will be to serve in campus ministry at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Bachelor’s degree, computer science, University of California, Irvine; Master’s degree, applied philosophy, Loyola University Chicago; Master’s degree, digital storytelling, Loyola University Chicago; Master of Divinity, Boston College School of Theology and Ministry; Licentiate in Sacred Theology, Boston College School of Theology and Ministry
What is one hobby you’ve cultivated as a Jesuit, and why is it important to you?
Acting. There was a time in formation when I thought that I had to leave the Society of Jesus because I believed that my true calling was to pursue the life of a full-time actor. After three joyful years as a Jesuit, I confessed to a spiritual director saying, “Jerry, I think I have to leave. God is calling me to pursue performing arts.”
My director asked, “Why not do it as a Jesuit?”
“I don’t think I will be allowed,” I responded.
Trying not to sound obvious, he inquired, “Have you tried…asking?”
Sometimes the evil spirit wins by scaring us away from bringing deep concerns into the light. There was nothing to fear in this situation in asking. In this case, I was surprised with a “yes” from my superior in Chicago, “As long as you do your homework.”
“Yes, Mom,” I thought, with newfound vocational glee.
God wastes nothing.
What followed were some of the most enriching years of my formation. I immersed myself in the Second City’s improv program several evenings a week. Improv trained us to face our fears and play hard in spite of them. Training led to public performances. Even though I think I sucked, I didn’t care. There was a life-giving camaraderie that was dynamic and supportive. And I didn’t have to sacrifice the gift of a Jesuit vocation to nurture this passion. On the contrary, it further colored in who I was (am) as a Jesuit. I was filled with joyful energy that emanated in community and even helped me do philosophy studies with fresher eyes. I sought support in a handful of Jesuit actors in our Assistancy who were not only insightful, but shepherding. Practice led to more performance opportunities. Soon, I landed my first talent manager thrusting me into the world of auditioning. I engaged comedy writing, tried my hand in stand-up and met regularly with fellow performers to produce comedy sketches.
Then, I got my first “no.”
As my time in Chicago came to a close, I returned to my province to begin regency. After a year, I asked the powers that be if I could pursue acting full-time as a regent. As much as my formators understood my deep-seated passion, my next mission would be to work full-time as a teacher and as the Student Life Activities coordinator at a Cristo Rey High School called Verbum Dei. I was initially crushed, but somehow managed to risk an affirmative response in obedience. I told my formator at the time, “I will give it my best.”
What followed, once again, were some of the most enriching years of my formation. My family and I were also at an abysmally low point. Mom was recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. And I was told “no” to my “dream.” And yet, the “yes” to committing to my new mission unexpectedly brought new life in a way that only grace could do. I came alive in the endless hours spent connecting with students, creating lunchtime competitions for silly prizes, handing out hilarious detention slips, forming promising young leaders and establishing lasting relationships with colleagues. A rhythm of going to bed exhausted and waking up at 4 a.m. each day to prepare for classes led me to realize a certain feeling: a sense of deep purpose that is not constrained by my own terms. Like it or not, the struggling actor inside had taken on a life of its own, as it were, and the Spirit always has this funny way of refining and redirecting disintegrating movements in one’s vocational life. Was this a divorce from the inner artist? Heck no. Again, on the contrary, grace was channeling it. God was saving it.
Today, I am freer than before to live out my calling as a Jesuit, come what may. Flawed beyond measure, at least I find myself less at the mercy of spirits that threaten me with ultimatums. Grace ain’t about that. It doesn’t play with our hearts like that. Rather, the good Spirit teaches us to play our hearts out as instruments of God’s nurturing love in the world.
God truly wastes nothing.
What’s one interesting fact about yourself not everyone would know?
Video games are the reason I am a Jesuit today.
I understand this requires unpacking. When my poor immigrant parents bought me a Nintendo Entertainment System, my life changed forever. I think I was four at the time. Mom and Dad said I would play until my face turned red. I’ll have you know; the sheer stimulation of analog entertainment has a direct impact on bladder control. Apparently. ♂ My kindergarten teacher at Sun View Elementary in Huntington Beach would report to my parents: “Martin pees every 30 minutes. Is he OK?”
But why should I care? I was four. All I worried about was how to beat my last high score in Mario Bros. and classic Tetris. Needless to say, the parental safeguards were quickly established in light of such a devilish addiction brought on by my fervent video gaming. “No games until you finish your homework,” they stipulated.
Now, not all games are created equal, mind you. There is an array of video game genres, and I loved most of them; first-person shooters, side-scrolling action, survival horror, beat ‘em up’s. But the one that held a special place in my heart was the role-playing game (RPG). Let me start by stating the obvious: The all-time classic (and best, in my humble opinion) RPG to me is Chrono Trigger for the 16-bit Super NES. As per any role-playing game, you command an avatar who ventures out into a massive fantasy world. In Chrono Trigger, you meet wildly diverse characters who join your team, and you go out on missions together, traveling through time with the modest hope of saving the world. You “level-up” as you go, as per the usual RPG schema. Each character that joins you in your adventure has different special abilities that require development. The combination of characters that you choose shapes the collective (and badass) abilities at your disposal. The stakes rise from mission to mission, region to region, as you continue to get stronger and stronger.
I hope I haven’t lost you in my geekery, but this gameplay was thoroughly spellbinding to me as a child. It bled out analogously into the way that I would see the world. The call to religious life, for me, somehow captured this sense of grand adventure, only it was real. People you meet are real. The stakes are real. The game, as it were, is not a game at all. A calling to religious life is a fantastical invitation to community and mission for the sake of sharing the Good News. Every stage presents challenges. Every challenge beckons growth. And if only one lesson is remembered, it is that you cannot do it alone, much less without the guidance of the Spirit.
Br. Jim Siwicki, SJ, the promotion director of the California Province at the time understandably thought it was bizarre to read this attestation on a spiritual autobiography of an applying candidate, but I meant every word!
I’ve long since departed from the habit of a red-faced child glued to a television screen for hours at a time, but the spirit of this child lives in me even today. No analogy will perfectly capture the arduous journey of discipleship, but I certainly never imagined that an analogue controller would help me take a leap of faith to the next level.
Tell your vocation story. One catch: You must use only six words.
May you become what you eat.
Imagine you could travel back in time and meet yourself the first day you entered the Society of Jesus. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to yourself?
“Ahem. Now I know what you’re thinking. You woke up, looked around and thought, ‘What in God’s name did I do?’ I remember that day well. You’re thinking, ‘I just cut the umbilical cord. The devil must be pissed.’ And lemme tell ya, boy is he ever, Marty. Just think of all those strange ‘random’ trials and tribulations that followed you right up to the day you entered — well, yesterday, I guess. And then of course, your first day, some you-lookin’ dude from the future pops into your room like a freakin’ ninja. I also very much realize the irony of time traveling with a name like Marty.
Listen, Marty, let me cut to the chase. So, uh, for whatever reason I was asked to fly back in time and offer you no more and no less than exactly one piece of advice. I was told I explode or something if I break that rule, and future ‘you’ no likey that. Yes, I know; I also find it hilarious that the one person you said you never wanted to meet was your future self. Well, future ‘you’ still feels the same way about future ‘you.’ We still have this weird feeling that the space-time continuum might somehow rupture, tearing open the earth killing millions of people. Or worse, remember “The Langoliers”?! Holy Jennifer cannoli.
All right, Marty, let me cut to the chase for real this time; I got less than 4000 characters to work with here. My one piece of advice for you is really an affirmation about dealing with an emotion you know well: rage. You will get incredibly angry at things that happen on the road ahead. One of your inclinations when poop happens is to take out your wrath on God. Good. This may not be the path for everyone, but theologically, it is sound. (I can say this with some degree of confidence after 121 freaking units of theology coursework — obviously not trying to scare you or anything.) You will have other inclinations that will urge you to lash out or act out: not so good.
Marty, the endgame has and always will be reconciliation in and through One Body. But it starts with complete vulnerability before your maker. Heck, you mean to tell me that that magnificent Incarnate Word literally came and dwelt among us so that we can live our life tiptoeing around our Creator? Come on, man! Yeah, love came, died and rose so that you can find a vindicated platform from which to ideologically bash others from? How insane is that?! We’re not sidelining the cry for justice; on the contrary, we want to embody it in the very manner Jesus would, amarite?! Like this privileged society we live in needs more examples of self-centered wrath. Pssh! It is always better to spew one’s toxicities on God, not neighbor. We as people often get that backward, Marty. God wants it from you. God’s ready to take it from you. God’s God, are you kidding me? She can handle it. She freaking bore you. She knows the very number of hairs on your head — a number that is rapidly descending by the passing year, I am sorry to say.
On that note, I gotta go.
Listen, the hair care products “Hims” and “Keeps” don’t come along until late 2017, but they are basically 1 mg of finasteride daily, anti-DHT shampoo and Rogaine. You’re welcome. Oh! And lastly, tell your friends and family to dump their life savings into a stock called Zoom Video when it gets invented in 2013. You’re welcome.”
See ya around, chum.
Marty from the Future