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The horrors of Vietnam were his training ground

EDITORS’ NOTE: The Week of Prayer for North American Missions, part of the 2004 North American Missions Emphasis, is being observed in many churches March 7-14. Baptist Press during this period will present profiles on the featured missionaries. For more on the emphasis, visit www.AnnieArmstrong.com.

ATLANTA (BP)–An Van Pham’s father was killed in front of him during the war in his native Vietnam. After accepting Christ, he was imprisoned. He was reaching so many people for Christ that he objected to being released. And, he and his family survived a death-riddled voyage as they escaped communist Vietnam.

Pham, fueled by God’s providence, helps start and support Asian churches in Georgia –- a populace that encompasses the 33 percent of immigrants in the United States who were born in Asia.

He and his wife, Lienhoa, are among nearly 5,200 missionaries in the United States and Canada supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are featured during the March 7-14 Week of Prayer and the North American Mission Study, which this year focus on “The World at Our Doorstep.”

Life was not easy when Pham grew up in war-torn South Vietnam. Active in church, he was baptized at age 12. But one day the war, which had raged around him but never touched him, came to his village.

“Something happened the night the communists came to my village and killed my father in front of me,” he said. “I remember seeing my father’s body, his blood on the ground, and wondering where I would go for eternity if the communists also killed me? I was barely a teenager, but I understood that my father was with Christ that night because he had accepted Him into his heart.

“That night I began to cry — not just for my father’s death, but for my sins. I knew I had never personally asked God into my heart, and I understood that He let my father die so that He could save me.”

In 1975 when South Vietnam fell to the communists, he was jailed along with thousands of others known to be sympathetic to the Americans. That’s when a second miracle occurred in his life.

“For the first six months in prison I was so angry with God. I constantly asked why He allowed the communists to win the war and close the churches. I asked Him why he called me to be a pastor and then sent me to jail. Since I didn’t receive a response I stopped praying and cut off my relationship with Him.

“But six months later a disease began to spread through the prison and nearly half of the prisoners began to die for lack of medicine. One day I noticed that my body was turning red, I had fever, and I felt like my body was shrinking. I knew that I was dying and that there was only one option — I needed to restore my relationship with God. When I prayed and asked forgiveness of my sins He brought another miracle into my life — my health began to improve.

“That’s when I realized that God sent me to be a missionary in that prison. I stood up and began to minister to the hundred or so around me in that room who were also dying, but I did not get sick. I told them about the love of God and many accepted Him before they died; others renewed their relationship and recommitted themselves to Him.”

Then God began to teach Pham another lesson — the value of small groups.

“I learned from that day that God wanted me to serve Him through cell groups. When you are in prison you have no Bible so you have to teach others one-on-one. It’s actually quite easy. So I began to win people to Christ, to train them, then equip them to be cell group leaders to reach others.

“After three years I cannot tell you how many cell groups were begun in that prison as the church went underground. Then one day a guard came to my room and told me I had served my time and could go home. I asked him if I could stay. He said, ‘Are you An Van Pham?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘You go home now. You cannot stay here any longer.’

“So, that is the lesson I learned from prison — that wherever I am, God has a plan for my life and if I follow that plan, many people will come to faith in Him.”

Late one night Pham, his wife and baby son, and 120 others — covered by a simple fish net — fled the country in a small boat. After many days their engine failed and they began to drift on the sea. Many died due to starvation and lack of water and their bodies were slipped over the side, but the survivors eventually were rescued off the coast of Thailand. A Southern Baptist missionary carried his son — who they thought was dead and had almost thrown overboard — to a hospital where he was revived. The three-member family lived in a refugee camp until they were able to immigrate to the United States.

Pham was appointed as a Southern Baptist missionary in 1987, working with the Georgia Baptist Convention.

With the same dedication he had in prison, today Pham travels the state as he helps plant churches among the growing Asian population. Just as in his prison days, he finds himself winning unbelievers to Christ, helping to train them, and then sending them out as missionaries to their friends.

The most important part of his ministry is the training of both youth and adults. Through an international youth camp, he sees teenagers grow in their faith so they can evangelize their peers. Many have dedicated themselves to fulltime service, some as pastors, others as missionaries.

With adults his work is more intense. He helps schedule workshops to train as many as 40 adults as mentors, pastors and church planters. Those individuals, from several different language groups, are spread out across Georgia with the potential to start up to 50 congregations in a year.

Pham knows the needs of Asians in Georgia, and he’s grateful that Southern Baptists around the world share in his ministry through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and the Cooperative Program.

“I believe that we [as a denomination] have grown because missions is the heart of God, and it’s the heart of Southern Baptists. Each year we give our money to support the work of our missionaries, and God blesses that faithfulness. He multiplies every penny to further His Kingdom.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PLENTY TO IMPART, A PRECIOUS FAITH and HEART FOR ASIANS.

    About the Author

  • Joe Westbury