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FIRST-PERSON: Not my father’s Vietnam

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Standing on the battlefield where my father fought and bled nearly 40 years ago was both unforgettable and surreal. The jungle had long since vanished — stripped away by three decades of slash-and-burn agriculture — but time and repeated monsoon rains had not completely washed away the berms and trenches that served as defensive fortifications around the old encampment.

I asked God on more than one occasion during my first trip to Vietnam in 2000, “Why did you bring me here?” I wondered if I was there solely to pray that my father would gain some peace from my having returned to the place where he lost so much. In the middle of that old camp, with bright red dust swirling in the wind, God answered “Lima-Charlie” or “Loud and Clear.”

Off in the distance I heard the unmistakable sound of a cowbell. The bell rattled as an oxcart made its way onto the road that now runs through the abandoned battlefield.

Sitting atop the oxcart was a young boy from one of Vietnam’s ethnic minority tribes, the Jarai. When our eyes met, I saw spiritual poverty on an unimaginable scale. We didn’t smile at each other. We never turned away. We just stared. “He’s why you’re here. Pray for him. Pray for all of the people that you see.” God had given me my answer. I learned the value of prayerwalking or praying “on-site with insight” that day.

I returned to Vietnam this past February with master of divinity student Brent Thompson to prayerwalk among the Vietnamese and the ethnic minorities (Montagnards) of the central highlands once again.

On the fourth day of our prayer journey, we walked through a Jarai village where I had prayed 18 months before. Then I had seen no discernable signs of Christianity there.

As Brent and I walked down a jungle path to the place where the Jarai women washed clothes and bathed children, we saw a simple inscription scratched into a concrete wash basin. It read, “Ye-su Krist.”

The tears were hard to hide. In such a remote corner of the world, Christ had sought out and saved someone who expressed his or her faith through a simple inscription.

The chief of the village was nearby, so our guide, himself a Jarai, asked the chief how many Christians were in the village.

“There are 20 sheep in the village,” the chief said. After investigating the number further, we discovered that 18 months before there had been only five “sheep.”

I learned at an early age that the motto of the Special Forces is “liberate the oppressed.” My father, a former Green Beret and military adviser in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s, lived and fought alongside the Jarai and other tribes. Although they failed to achieve political freedom for South Vietnam, God is about the task of liberating men and women everywhere from the laws of sin and death through the power of the gospel.

In a recent book, Chalmers Archer Jr., one of the founding members of the Special Forces, noted that Special Forces soldiers were not solely combatants. They were teachers, medics, agriculturists and even veterinarians. They spent six-month tours in Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, beginning in 1956.

The early members of the Special Forces took on the role of “force multipliers.” They entered a country that had asked for assistance in protecting itself from communist insurgents and began to train a small group of nationals — usually a few hundred enlisted men and officers — in the art of special warfare. Over the next six months that same group of nationals became skilled unconventional warriors.

The nationals, once trained, became cadres who trained other soldiers. The process was repeated until the entire army was professional, wholly indigenous and highly trained and motivated. The soldier of lowest rank trained at the end of the process received the same training as the soldier of highest rank at the beginning of the process.

Could it be that God could use the church as “gospel multipliers” in Vietnam? Our task as a church is to make disciples and to teach them all that Jesus taught us. Then they will teach others. The result is a rapidly replicating and wholly indigenous pyramid. Better still, they will be motivated and committed to liberating those spiritually oppressed by sin. I am confident the harvest will be great.

The conditions in Vietnam make it ripe for the harvest. In fact, the conditions there are much like they were when the apostles spread Christianity to the ends of the Roman Empire. There is relative peace in the country. There is a system of roads for ease of travel. The people, whether Buddhists or animists, are sensitive to spiritual matters.

Most interestingly, the populace is highly literate. In the Roman Empire, nations maintained their linguistic heritages but utilized Koine Greek in commerce and politics. Today 96 percent of Vietnamese read and write. Although they have maintained their own tribal dialects, Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority groups also read and write Vietnamese.

The government’s attitude toward Christianity, unfortunately, is also similar to that of the Roman Empire. Most churches must meet outdoors or in a different home each week for worship. In short, they love the Lord and continue to follow him no matter how much they are persecuted. As Tertullian once wrote, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Another war in Vietnam is raging, but this war has nothing to do with democracy, capitalism, communism or any other political system. This war is for the souls of 79 million men, women and children, or to borrow a phrase used often during the Vietnam War — a war aimed at “winning their hearts and minds” for Jesus Christ.

After returning home, I talked with my father about Vietnam. He marveled at the photos of high-rises that dotted the skyline of Saigon. “That’s Saigon?” he asked. “I can’t believe how much it has changed.” I didn’t bother to tell him about the arrival there of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Baskin Robbins.

He was right. Vietnam has changed. It is not my father’s Vietnam. The country is changing because of the influence of Western culture. It is also changing one heart at a time. These new believers – sheep, as the chief called them — are doing their best to follow the Great Shepherd under very difficult circumstances.

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin