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His promise, ‘I’ll never leave you again,’ nurtured Vietnamese orphan, now pastor

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–It was 1972. The Vietnam War was in full swing. A mother, leading her 4-year-old son by the hand, turned him over to strangers at a Cam Ranh Bay orphanage. The child cried as his mom walked away.

He never would see her again.

But he would find a friend, mentor, protector and, ultimately, father within the orphanage.

That little boy, Ty Cope, now 31, is the founding pastor of RiverSouth Community Church, which meets at Huguenot Road Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. His journey from orphan to Baptist minister is a lesson in faith and devotion.

It was 1973. John Cope was leaving Vietnam for the second time.

He had left the first time after being discharged from the Air Force. But he was intent on returning to help the Vietnamese people.

“We had a lot of Vietnamese help on the base,” John Cope said. “They were wonderful people. When I left [the first time], I knew I had to give back to those people.”

He believes God led him to the orphanage where he met Ty. But he’s not sure why the two hit it off so quickly.

“Ty was a little mischievous child,” John Cope said in a telephone interview from his Frederick, Okla., home. “There was a [preschool] at the orphanage. He would come down every afternoon and bring his papers to show me. He was cute, but I would have to say that about all the children.”

The decision to leave the second time was difficult, he said. If he had stayed at the orphanage another year, he was afraid he would not be able to leave his young buddy. And as a single person, he didn’t think he could adopt.

After John Cope left, life at the orphanage droned on for Ty. The dormitory was crowded, and the bowls of rice were sparse.

In 1975, Vietnam fell. The orphanage director, Nguyen Xuan Ha, a Christian convert of Southern Baptist missionaries, decided to get the 82 children out of the country.

“One morning, they gave each child a bag of goodies; rice, food. The children and staff got on buses to go to the dock. On the way, we encountered — at a checkpoint or border — lots of people, lots of congestion and traffic, lots of soldiers. Gunfire broke out. [The] staff rushed us off the bus to a safe place,” Ty recalled.

Ha purchased an old leaky boat. The orphans and 15 adults boarded the boat and headed out to sea.

“We were really packed in. I remember it smelled. One of the younger children vomited. Everybody was seasick. There was lots of crying. I sat beside a window for three days, watching the sea,” Ty said.

The boat broke down and drifted, maybe for a day. Ty was too young to know what was going on or where the boat was headed. A ship towed the boat but soon cut the line and left them.

Three fishing boats rescued the children and took them to Singapore. During the two weeks there, Ha contact the Baptists, who arranged for the children to be flown to Fort Chafee, Ark.

It was 1975. John Cope entered Ty’s life again.

John Cope was working in Fayatteville, Ark., about an hour from Fort Chafee. He heard that a group of Vietnamese orphans had come to the United States. He contacted a missionary friend and learned where the children were.

Ty remembers his friend’s arrival at Fort Chafee.

“All the kids rushed him, and I couldn’t get to him,” Ty said. “I went around to his back and pulled on his back pocket. When he saw me, he said: ‘I’ll never leave you again.'”

John Cope quit his Arkansas job and decided to move wherever the children went, which turned out to be Buckner Baptist Children’s Home in Dallas. John Cope became the home’s cook. The children stayed at Buckner two years while they learned English and adjusted to life in America.

It was 1977. Ty was 8. The Vietnamese children at Buckner were going to foster homes; some were being adopted. John Cope wanted to adopt Ty but ran into problems because he was single. A lawyer got things rolling. The adoption became official. John Cope loaded up his belongings along with his new son and moved to Frederick, Okla., where his parents lived. It was the first real home Ty remembers.

“It was like a miracle,” Ty said. “It was part of God’s plan for my life.”

In Frederick, the Vietnamese child was the town’s first and only Asian person. “Boy, was I made fun of. I started beating up everybody. I got into a lot of fights before I started to develop relationships and friends. … I’m pretty westernized now. I don’t feel I’m different.”

John Cope’s mother assumed the role of mom for the boy. “She made sure I was dressed well. She really did a great job taking care of me,” Ty said.

It was 1986. Ty was a high school senior. His father married a young Mexican woman, Anna, whom he met through Ha’s family. John and Anna gave Ty two sisters.

“I had been praying hard,” Ty said. “I was getting ready to go off to college. I thought it would be terrible to go and leave him alone.”

Ty and his high school sweetheart, Kayla, attended Oklahoma State University and were married in 1991, the year he graduated. He also is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Ty and Kayla have two daughters, Joy, 5, and Jill, 2.

In his last year at Southwestern, representatives from two churches visited the seminary to recruit ministers. One was Webber Memorial Baptist in Chesterfield, Va. In 1995, Ty became Webber Memorial’s minister of children and youth. He left there last summer to found RiverSouth.

“What was started way back [with the conversion of Ha in Vietnam] through the love and ministry of missionaries continues to produce,” Ty said. “It comes full circle. It brought me here.”

“From the time I first knew him,” his father recalled, “I prayed the Lord would call him to some kind of service.

“God works in mysterious ways.”

Copyright, Richmond Times-Dispatch. Used with permission. (BP) photo, courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: TY COPE.

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  • Alberta Lindsey