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The lessons of Vietnam taught Sam James to listen, learn

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The most joyful Lord’s Supper Sam James ever experienced was served in silence — on a rusted table in a park.

Nearly 15 years after South Vietnam’s fall to communism drove James and other missionaries out, he returned for a brief visit in 1989. He sent a message to Vietnamese Christian friends that he was coming but doubted he would see any of them. Most had suffered years of prison, “re-education” camps and persecution for following Christ.

As he emerged from his hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) one morning, someone brushed by and pressed a message into his hand: “Meet us at the park at 2 o’clock.”

When he arrived at the park, a man led him through a jungle of overgrown weeds to a tiny clearing. Seven of his former seminary students waited there, seated around an old wrought-iron table.

They were so gaunt and frail that he barely recognized them at first. They embraced him with tears and laughter and spoke of the trials they had faced under communism.

“One of them reached into a paper bag, pulled out an aluminum tray and set it on the table,” James recalls. “Another pulled out a loaf of French bread and set it on the tray; another had a little bunch of grapes. One of them broke the bread and began to pass it around. We each took a grape. Nobody said it was the Lord’s Supper, but we knew what it was.”

James remembers something else about these men: Years earlier, when they first arrived at the Baptist seminary in Saigon asking to study the Bible, they were rowdy, ragged country folk — nothing like the sophisticated students from the city. James never thought they’d pass the first class, much less endure years of suffering for Christ.

“And yet they’re the ones who gathered in that little clearing 14 years later to serve the Lord’s Supper to me, their teacher,” he says. “It just shows how God’s transforming power can take anybody — anybody — and make us into what he wants us to be.”

Case in point: James himself.

Born in a red-dirt North Carolina county during the Depression, he grew up poor — “so poor even the poor people felt sorry for us.” His father was alcoholic but hardworking and too proud to accept help from local folks, Franklin D. Roosevelt or anyone else.

Yet James and his two brothers were the first college graduates in the area. His brothers became physicians. James went on to “one of the most varied and illustrious careers of any missionary in our time — or any time,” declares Avery Willis, the Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s chief of overseas operations.

James, 69, recently retired from the board after 40 years of service. Among other things, he:

— helped start Southern Baptist mission work in South Vietnam with his wife, Rachel, and other missionaries;

— founded and directed the Vietnamese Baptist Theological Seminary, training a generation of Vietnamese pastors;

— led and ministered to hundreds of missionaries during stints as field representative and area director for East Asia and regional vice president for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa;

— spearheaded the IMB International Center for Excellence in Leadership to increase the strategic impact of missionaries;

— prepared thousands of new missionaries as the primary creative force behind Southern Baptists’ Missionary Learning Center in Rockville, Va. It opened in 1983 and recently underwent a major expansion.

As a young man, James joined the Navy to escape his hardscrabble hometown. He served on an aircraft carrier that cruised to various Asian ports during the Korean War. While on shore leave in Japan, he was approached by a Japanese student on a train.

“My professor told me to believe in Jesus,” the student said. “How do you believe?” James had no answer.

“She bowed very politely, got off the train and I never saw her again,” he recalls. “But when the train started off, every turn of the wheels said, ‘How do you believe? How do you believe?’ It just echoed in my mind.”

Back on board ship, he found an empty spot under the flight deck and read the Gospels with a flashlight (a wartime blackout was in effect). “It was like the heavens opened; I realized who Jesus is for the first time in my life.” And he believed.

He told his shipmates later that day. They laughed, then took bets on how long his new faith would endure: $10 for a week, $20 for two weeks. That was 50 years ago.

Looking out over the Asian ports of call, including Vietnam, James also sensed a call to the world. “I realized I couldn’t go back to living in a town with eight churches — two of them Baptist — and 1,400 people,” he says.

After college and seminary, he returned to Vietnam as a missionary with his wife, Rachel, and three young children in 1962. He wanted to start churches but soon realized he could multiply his impact by training Vietnamese church starters. His teaching ministry was born.

“I remember well attending classes with Dr. James,” says Chinh Van Dao, one of the first seminary students, who now lives in the United States. “As a result of his humble life, we saw God clearly, and we wanted to serve him.”

James’ heart remains in Vietnam, and he continues to share the gospel with Vietnamese around the world. The evacuation of missionaries in 1975 — as North Vietnamese tanks rolled toward Saigon — emotionally devastated James and others who experienced it. But the persecution of Christians that followed the communist takeover has purified the church, he believes, and those who endured have become “absolutely fearless” in their commitment.

The agonizing departure also taught him a priceless lesson.

As the plane carrying him and others lifted off in total darkness to avoid hostile fire, he looked down over Saigon and experienced an identity crisis: The seminary was closed. The churches would soon be closed. His status as a missionary, teacher and pastor — all gone.

“That night I realized that I am a child of God” — period. “Nobody can ever take that identity from me. I decided there and then never to let a position or a geographical location define my identity in Christ.”

The lesson ultimately freed him to serve in numerous roles around the world — including the mentoring of new generations of missionaries.

“We take the Missionary Learning Center for granted now,” reflects IMB President Jerry Rankin. “But it was Sam who envisioned it — not only the facility but the program.”

“Learning” is a big word for James, still a teacher at heart. So is “listening.”

Most new missionaries who train at the center before heading overseas are either “knowers” or “learners,” he contends. The “knowers” think they already have all the answers; the “learners” listen — to God and others.

“The ‘knowers’ never make it” as missionaries, James says. “But if they come as ‘learners,’ as listeners, those are the people who are going to make it on the field. I led more people to the Lord in my last two years in Vietnam than the previous 12 because I learned to listen to people, to let them open themselves up so the Lord could come in and touch them where they were hurting. Before, I was just preaching at them.”

Many struggling missionaries have received the benefit of his listening — and his pastor’s touch. Linda Whitworth, formerly a missionary in Japan and now an IMB staff member, remembers a call from James as she grieved the unexpected death of her father.

“I don’t even recall his words,” she says. “It was just the fact that he took the time to call when I was one of the hundreds of missionaries that served under Sam. It touched me in a special way.”

Even in retirement, James will continue to handle special projects for the International Mission Board, and he’s excited about the impact young Gen Xers are making on missions. He sees them as a generation of learners, open to advice and counsel, eager for mentors, willing to work with others.

“I have a lot of hope in the new generation,” he says.

Somewhere out there, perhaps in a hardscrabble little town, God may be preparing the next Sam James.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: TEACHING AND LEARNING, LOOKING TO THE FUTURE and MULTIPLYING DISCIPLEMAKERS.
— Curious about how you fit into what God is doing overseas? http://www.imb.org/FPNeeds/default.htm
— Missionary prayer needs: http://www.imb.org/CompassionNet/index.asp
— Students: Be a leader by becoming a follower: http://www.thetask.org
— Are you ready to respond to the challenge of volunteering overseas? http://www.imb.org/vim

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges