By Don Graham
Tears streamed down Sam James’ face as he stared into the abyss outside his airplane window. Somewhere in the darkness below lay the country he risked his life — and the lives of his wife, Rachel, and their four children — to save. But unlike so many American men and women who came to Vietnam, James wasn’t a soldier. He was a missionary.
It was April 1975 and Saigon would fall to North Vietnamese forces within a week. James had spent the past few months bargaining with God for more time, but there was no more room for negotiation. Two weeks earlier, his family had flown to a safer place; James would join them there.
“I had a tremendous urge to try to stop the plane and go back to the place that I loved so dearly. …” he says. “I remember lying in bed at night and saying, ‘Lord, if you just let me live until tomorrow morning, I’ll get out. … And then the sun would come up, the birds would sing and everything looked nice. And I’d say, ‘OK Lord, [give me] one more day.’”
Waves of doubt — and regret — flooded the North Carolina native’s heart as his plane circled Saigon and turned toward the South China Sea. How could he abandon the Vietnamese people after pouring nearly 14 years of his life into theirs? What would happen to the newborn churches he helped start? Or to the Vietnamese Christians who filled them, some of whom he had led to faith?
These converts weren’t notches on a belt to measure evangelical worth. To James, they were family. They had laughed together over dinner at each other’s homes while their children played outside. They had carried one another’s grief when the horrors of war came close and the sadness seemed too great to bear. James had taught them, baptized them, discipled them, counseled them, officiated marriages and led funerals for them, all the while sharing the most sacred and intimate aspect of his life — a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But God had a plan to safeguard the seeds that James and his fellow missionaries had planted through years of sweat and sacrifice. Their efforts freed thousands from a centuries-old cycle of spiritual slavery to ancestor worship and Buddhism, spawning dozens of new Vietnamese churches.
Only one of those churches — Grace Baptist in Saigon (today, Ho Chi Minh City) — would survive the dark years that followed Vietnam’s communist revolution and eventually give birth to a vibrant network of Baptist churches that are today making Christ’s name known throughout Vietnam.
All of this was possible, James says, because Southern Baptists were willing to answer God’s Great Commission call. Their prayers and giving supported more than 50 missionaries who served in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975 — including the Jameses. In 1969, Southern Baptists also provided the $50,000 needed to buy the land and building for Grace Baptist — where the church remains today.
“When the end came and South Vietnam collapsed, this church was here,” James says. “And it became the identity of Baptists in Vietnam. … 48 years later, this church building stands as the home of the [Vietnamese Baptist] convention, as a training center for the [Vietnamese] Baptist Bible Institute, as the home of Grace Baptist Church and as a source of church planting in this country.”
But that victory came at a heavy price. The decade that followed South Vietnam’s collapse was a crucible for Vietnamese believers suddenly forced to survive in a society that demanded loyalty to the Communist Party. And Hanoi’s Marxist ideology made little room for faith.
“We were threatened, we were questioned, interrogated and some people in our churches were persecuted. Some were put into jail. Some were beaten,” says Huy Le, who today pastors Grace Baptist Church.
Huy was just 6 when the North Vietnamese army captured Saigon. He vividly remembers the moment when he knew the city was lost — besieged by the incessant drone of helicopters, bright red tracer rounds cutting “beams of fire” through the night sky and the rumble of North Vietnamese tanks outside his bedroom window.
Huy’s father, Chanh Le, embodies the genesis of Southern Baptists’ work in Vietnam. Chanh was the first Vietnamese led to Christ by one of the first Southern Baptist missionaries to Vietnam, Lewis Myers. Chanh was subsequently discipled and baptized by the first Southern Baptists missionary in Vietnam, Herman Hayes. In 1970, Chanh became Grace Baptist’s first Vietnamese pastor, succeeding Sam James. Chanh turned down multiple opportunities to flee the country before its collapse, choosing instead to shepherd his congregation as they endured countless interrogations, harassment, forced-labor “re-education” camps, food shortages and economic depression.
“[Our] faith in Christ was the reason for us to live,” says Huy, who began pastoring Grace Baptist in 2010 following his father’s retirement after 40 years of service. “Thanks to God’s grace, we could suffer and keep our faith.”
Today Grace Baptist is again facing revolution. But instead of political dissonance, this new wave of change is driven by economic aspiration. Vietnam’s government is opening the once-isolated nation with the aim of transforming it into Southeast Asia’s economic powerhouse. And as better education and more lucrative jobs lure young Vietnamese from rural rice paddies to urban offices and factories, the standard of living continues to rise. According to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office, the average monthly income more than tripled between 1999 and 2008 and the nation’s average urban population jumped by at least 25 percent.
Reaching this young, career-focused and typically more materialistic demographic with the Gospel presents new challenges for churches like Grace Baptist. Much like their Southern Baptist counterparts in the United States, Huy believes Vietnamese Baptists must be willing to change in order to remain relevant to future generations, repackaging timeless truth in more contemporary ways.
“Young people have more opportunities … and, at the same time, more temptations,” Huy says. “In the past, people had nothing … and they longed for some god up there to lay their hope on. Now, people have so many things to follow.”
But as more Vietnamese move from poverty to prosperity, some are already recognizing that money isn’t an end unto itself.
Lam Quach is a 35-year-old husband and father of two rambunctious boys who lives in a modern home not far from Grace Baptist Church. Despite a successful career as a manager at a Saigon chemical company, Quach knew something was missing in his life. He heard about Jesus through a friend, and with guidance from the wife of a Vietnamese Baptist pastor, Quach and his wife, Hanh, believed.
“I believed there was a great God who was over everything … but I didn’t know anything about Him,” Quach says. “It was only when I began to experience prayer and experiment with the Christian life that I really began to understand who God is and read the Bible.”
Perhaps the most tangible expression of the couple’s new faith was their decision to destroy an altar they’d used for ancestor worship, a common fixture in Vietnamese homes.
“It was just a little altar with two pictures. One is the god of the earth … and the other was the god who brings blessings,” Quach says. He invited Pastor Huy to their home to help remove the altar. Huy read from Psalm 115, illustrating the differences between false idols and the one, true God.
“I took a hammer and smashed it to pieces,” Quach says, explaining that he wanted to make sure the altar would never be used again, by anyone. “I felt like I’d been set free.”
Quach and Hanh now attend Grace Baptist where they were baptized in the fall of 2010.
Vietnam’s economic ambitions have also helped win unprecedented freedom for religious groups, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City where police shakedowns might draw the eye — and ire — of the city’s growing international business community. In 2008, the Vietnamese Baptist Convention was legally recognized by the Vietnamese government, a move that legitimized the church’s presence in the country while allowing greater freedom to share the Gospel. Though the government still tightly regulates religious activity, Grace Baptist’s church-planting network is spreading to villages formerly bound by bureaucratic red tape that seemed unbreakable only a few years ago.
Dien Nguyen pastors An Phuoc Baptist Church in Cai Lay, a town roughly 50 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta. Last year, Nguyen approached authorities in the Tien Giang province for permission to start new churches in four nearby villages. To Nguyen’s surprise, An Phuoc Baptist was instead authorized to work anywhere in the entire province — a chance to reach more than 1.6 million people with the Gospel — no strings attached.
“This was a miracle,” Nguyen says. “We didn’t dare to even dream about it.”
But such miracles are still only a beginning. Despite the legacy of missionaries like Sam James, today evangelical Christians make up less than 2 percent of Vietnam’s 91 million people. Most have yet to hear the Gospel.
“I believe there is hope for Vietnam,” Huy says. “It’s just not easy. Some … have said that [our] people have hard hearts. That might be true, but there are seekers out there. … The question is whether churches are willing to take opportunities to win these people.”
Don Graham is an IMB senior writer.