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Welch, in Vietnam, commends religious freedom strides

HANOI, VIETNAM (BP)–When Bobby Welch first came to Vietnam more than 40 years ago, it was as a soldier. Now he comes as an ambassador for Christ. Rather than coming to fight, he comes to make friends.

Three years ago after retiring from First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., Welch stepped into the role of Strategist for Global Evangelical Relations for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. His ambassadorial position has taken him across the world to strengthen the relationship between Southern Baptists and fellow believers as well as governments in other nations.

Vietnam is just one of the countries that Welch, a former SBC president, has visited.

“It is impossible to accomplish the Great Commission,” he said, “without first building great connections.”

On his first trip to Vietnam, a bullet tore through Welch’s lung. He survived only after realizing his need for God. Welch has since been back to Vietnam three times.

Welch strayed from God during his college years after making a commitment to Christ as a teenager. In Vietnam he was a weak believer. Yet, when he was wounded, a dying Welch cried out to God. At that moment a helicopter appeared and he knew whom to thank.

The rain-drenched jungles of Vietnam became the backdrop for his rededication to Christ.

“Every morning of my life, when I look in the mirror to shave my face,” he said, “I see the long scar on my chest and the cuts on my side. I say, ‘Thank you, Vietnam,’ because it changed my life.”

Welch walked away from the war without hatred or resentment. Instead, he carried an awareness of his own mortality, a heightened awe of his heavenly Father and a sense of immediacy for his evangelical task.

The real story behind his latest trip to Vietnam is not his history with the country, Welch said, but the fact that he — as a high-ranking leader in an American religious organization — was asked to come.

“I was invited by the government,” he said. “That’s the uniqueness about it. They didn’t invite me because I was in the war…. That’s an incidental irony.”

Over the past five years, Vietnam has taken significant steps toward religious freedom for its citizens. The government has recognized several religious groups, including the Vietnam Baptist Convention. However, the new laws leave room for improvement and rumors persist of oppression against believers in rural areas.

Welch came to encourage continued progress and to extend a friendly hand from a Christian representative.

Vietnam Baptist Convention Executive Secretary Huy Le facilitated Welch’s meetings, which he said could give the Baptist convention greater standing in the government’s eyes.

“Our convention has started as a small convention,” Huy said. “This relationship with the SBC can build more credibility and let people know that we are part of a much greater Baptist community in the world. It is also an approach we made that could lead to opportunities to start other ministries in the country.”

On Feb. 3, Welch met with leaders from three separate departments, commending them for their strides toward religious freedom. He brought gifts, he prayed for them, told them about his experiences in Vietnam and about the God who let him live.

“I know some of the pain of being in a war,” he said, “but I also know how the Lord can change that.”

His ministry, Welch said, is a ministry of presence. Sometimes phone calls and e-mails can’t hold the weight and meaning of a handshake and a smile.

“It means a lot to these people that I have come a long, long way to be here,” Welch said.

As he rode through downtown Hanoi, Welch pointed to a woman walking down the street and a man riding a motorcycle. He was here, he said, so people like them could hear the Gospel. That is the ultimate desire in his heart as well as the ultimate desire of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Shiloh Lane filed this story through Baptist Press’ international bureau.

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