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Baptists celebrate 50 years in Vietnam with hugs, tears

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (BP)–Shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Le Quoc Chanh, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), came with his wife and young son to the home of missionary Sam James.

Chanh told James that he and his family had the opportunity to leave the war-ravaged country on a boat but weren’t sure what to do. They were going to spend the weekend praying. James, whose wife and children had already evacuated, pledged to join the Chanhs in prayer.

“Monday morning, they came back to my house,” James recalled. “Pastor Chanh told me they had decided to stay in Vietnam. He said that God had given him a flock to pastor, and he could not abandon his sheep.”

Both men knew the enormity of this decision.

Many churches closed their doors as turmoil and uncertainty enveloped the country. Grace Baptist was the only church that remained open and held services in the early days of the new Vietnamese government.

Today Grace Baptist still meets at its original location, the site in mid-November for services celebrating 50 years of Baptist work in Vietnam. Vietnamese Baptists, former missionaries and visitors from the United States and Cambodia gathered for worship, preaching and celebration. Nearly 725 people, including a number of government officials, attended the Nov. 15 service.

Pastor Chanh was seated on the front pew.

Although elderly and in poor health, Chanh retains the title of senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. He stood briefly to accept a plaque from Bobby Welch, who represented the Southern Baptist Convention and was keynote speaker for the morning service.

Chanh’s son, Huy, is the associate pastor and has assumed many of the day-to-day responsibilities of the pastorate. Huy, who also serves as executive secretary of the Vietnam Baptist Convention, was the main organizer of the celebration.

In 2008, through Chanh’s and Huy’s leadership, the Vietnam Baptist Convention was organized, and it was officially recognized by the Vietnamese government to carry out its work among the country’s nearly 87 million people. The convention’s primary objectives are to start new churches, disciple believers, train workers, develop leaders, publish materials and meet human needs in the name of Jesus.

Baptist work in Vietnam began in 1959 when Herman and Dottie Hayes, the first Southern Baptist workers to the country, arrived in Saigon. Over the next few years, missionary families continued to respond to the call to work in Vietnam, and by 1975 the mission force had grown to nearly 40 families scattered throughout the south and central areas.

“We were all young when we went to Vietnam,” recalled Rachel James, Sam’s wife. “It was new work. We were in our 30s with small children. We all grew up together. We were family.”

Although the majority of their years in Vietnam were fraught with bombings, escalating tensions and finally all-out war, none of the former missionaries focused on those aspects during the celebration. Instead, when asked during a panel discussion about their struggles and obstacles, they recounted funny stories of language barriers and cultural faux pas. They also recalled the heartbreak of leaving a people and a country they had come to love.

Texan Celia Moore, who turned 80 in June, and her daughter, C’Anne Wofford, flew from the United States to attend the services. Wofford was 12 years old when she left Vietnam with her mother. Her father, Peyton Moore, left the country with James and another missionary a few days later.

“Our first night in Hong Kong, my daughter asked me, ‘Why did we have to leave our country?'” Celia recalled. “I had no answer for her then.”

Over the years, however, the Moores saw God’s leadership as they found opportunities to work with Vietnamese living in the United States.

The children, now in their 40s, remember the fun times — digging tunnels in the backyard, climbing onto the roof to pick fruit and even smuggling a stray cat onto an Air Vietnam flight. And they remember Vietnam as home.

Wofford smiled as she sipped coconut milk straight from a coconut. “Everybody said, ‘Oh it’s going to be so different!’ But I was here as a child. For me, it’s more of a sensory thing,” she said. “It’s not the size of the buildings. It’s the smells and sounds and feel of the place that I remember.”

Texan Mark Humphries was 10 years old when his parents, Jim and Mary Humphries, left in 1973. Jim Humphries pastored the English-speaking Trinity Baptist Church in Saigon. Mark Humphries and Wofford were baptized on the same day at Trinity.

The place where Trinity Baptist once stood is now a vacant lot.

While these adult missionary kids reveled in the sights and smells of “home,” their parents reconnected with old friends and marveled at how the family of God has continued to grow.

A large number of those who attended the celebration service were young people.

“Most of those who attended the services weren’t even alive when we were here,” said Rachel James.

Hugs, tears and laughter punctuated the music and pageantry of the celebration services. Rachel James reconnected with two women who were kindergarten students at Grace Baptist in the 1960s. Others recalled holding baby boys who are now grown men.

Representatives from convention churches across Vietnam traveled to Ho Chi Minh City for the occasion along with a contingent from the Vietnamese living in Cambodia and from the Vietnamese Baptist Convention in the United States.

One of the most moving connections was among Chanh, Lewis Myers and Rose Stevens* of Cambodia.

Chanh was the first person to come to Christ under Baptist work in Vietnam. Myers, who served in Vietnam from 1960-75, was preaching the service when Chanh gave his heart to the Lord. Stevens is a Vietnamese doctor now living in Cambodia. Originally from Hanoi, Stevens was the first person to accept Christ among the Vietnamese living in Cambodia. Myers, who served in Cambodia from 2000-03, also led her to the Lord.

At the Nov. 15 celebration service, Myers introduced Stevens to Chanh.

“During our time in Vietnam, we prayed that God would lead us to people in the north,” Myers recalled. “Then in Cambodia, our first convert was a Vietnamese woman from the north.”

Stevens said, “I did not know until recently that I was the first among my people in Cambodia to follow the Lord.”

She paused as tears filled her eyes. “But 50 years ago, God chose one person here. So how was it that I was the first Vietnamese in Cambodia? It is making me think….

“It is my desire that someday our church in Cambodia will be like this,” she said. “I don’t know what to say except to praise God.”
*Name changed. Reported by Baptist Press’ international bureau.

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  • Tess Rivers