Grace in Vietnam
It was love at first sight. Built around seven lakes, Hanoi’s French architecture tells of its colonial past; and food — always, everywhere. Streets, narrow, lined with markets of all kinds. I especially noted meat stalls, workers with cleavers cutting meat or cleaning fish side by side to market gardens and small stores of all kinds. I suspect if you can’t find what you want here, it can’t be found. Hustle. Bustle. Everyone is at work, unless it’s evening; then friends and family eat their meal around cooking stoves.
In a population of 94 million there are 40 million motorbikes. Their crisscrossing seems bizarre, yet with logic in the traffic madness. Polite and kind in their language, forceful, staccato-like – it’s easy to hear. Their currency – a million “dong” equals 44 U.S. dollars – makes everything here seem inexpensive.
In my travels I look for footprints of the Spirit. Vietnam is a country of tragedy, ingenuity and beauty. These past 100 years, as the Spirit birthed a people of God, through horrors of war and still living under Marxist rule, theirs is an apostolic story. In this country of mysterious contradictions there is a groundswell of faith. It is not always pretty and petty conflicts abound. Yet they are offset by martyrdom and fearless faith, bridging a divided world by wisdom, grace and the love of Jesus. I hear leaders talk about their care for Communist Party bosses and staff, knowing they too suffer heartbreaks of family and the stress of pleasing their party and are in need of the solace and peace of the risen Lord.
Reg Reimer and I walked into a stadium offered by the government for the Centennial celebrations. We were with the 5,000 guests who enjoyed a three-hour program. Its professional pantomime of history, music and a picturesque recall of evangelical history and witness was as good as I’ve seen. Something important that I noticed was that the Tin Lan Church (North)—the main Protestant denomination—had welcomed the largely Charismatic house churches to be part of the celebration. This matters as an expression of openness and Christian unity in a country where suspicion runs high.
The Hanoi Evangelical Church was formed in 1916, and the celebration symbolized the struggles and growth of the global evangelical community. In the eighty-five countries I’ve visited in the past five years, it strikes me that Vietnam is paradigmatic, a picture in real time of the old and new, memories in black and white and now digital.
One evening I dined with a professor of religion from Ho Chi Minh University, with a party member alongside listening. Our cordial and candid conversation was informative and intellectually stimulating. As we left I commented to the party official, “Be careful, Jesus will capture your heart.” We said goodbyes with smiles and promises to meet again. Before bedtime I prayed it would be so. At the official service I was asked along with my remarks to offer a blessing to the representative of the Communist Party. I spoke of the Hebrew Shalom – God’s reign of peace – and offered a blessing for God’s Shalom to reign in their nation, among their leadership and in their personal lives. The representative rose as I left the platform and, in respectful Asian form, bowed and offered me his business card. In the moment I didn’t appreciate the significance of Pastor Bui asking me to offer such a blessing. But later I was told that they had never seen a Christian representing the global Evangelical community offer a blessing to a Marxist regime. Obvious in his desire to reach out, Pastor Bui reminded me that only Jesus can bring healing to those scarred with hatred and misunderstanding.
The Roman Catholic Church has been there for 300 years and has paid an enormous price for its faith. In 1911 the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church arrived. Without excusing mistakes made, it seems to me that in the cross-cultural ministry I’ve witnessed, Vietnam is one example where missionaries showed remarkable foresight. Soon after their arrival in 1911, they placed into leadership national pastors and leaders. Rather than making the church a western outpost, they indigenized – that is, they handed over leadership to the Vietnamese. Then they translated the Bible into Vietnamese, a translation so well done that today, even with recent versions, it continues to be their favorite. The power of the biblical text in one’s own language is without parallel. This feeds back into the leadership, as nationals are able to exercise authority in preaching the text in the language of their people. Next came the Japanese, French and the United States, a litany of miscalculations on all sides. In 1975 Marxism under Ho Chi Minh took over. For the next decades, Christians were hounded and persecuted, holding on until gradual semblances of freedom would open doors for ministry.
Four people movements
There were four movements of Vietnamese people that not only brought change but gave rise to a witness of Christ. The first were boat people who fled when the U.S. was defeated, settling in places such as Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Many came to faith and became a diaspora active in finding ways to introduce the Gospel to their homeland, and to influence Vietnamese wherever they went. In the 90s the government sent students to Soviet- influenced countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Poland. The Vietnamese diaspora sent missionaries to those areas and many students came to faith, returning to their homeland as emissaries of the Gospel. The third group was workers sent to places such as South Korea. There they were evangelized and continued active in faith when they returned to their homeland. And fourth, in the past couple decades students have studied overseas and also encountered Christ. These four movements have been critical in building strong leadership and spiritual witness and service in Vietnam.
Serving the despised
We drove about an hour out of Hanoi and walked into a housing area where fifty recovering drug addicts were receiving therapy, and spiritual instruction. In the 1990s drugs infested the land and the government response was to imprison the offenders. This only exacerbated and deepened the problem. Earlier that day I had sat with three handsome Vietnamese men in their early thirties, all former drug addicts now running drug centers and pastoring churches. Two were from well-known Vietnamese families. One had even attempted to sell his child to sustain his drug addiction.
The government views with amazement these forty centers in Hanoi area, providing lasting therapy. This program along with other services Christians offer helps a materialistic and Communist-led party see Jesus as the true revolutionary, not overthrowing political regimes but redeeming self-destruction and planting seeds of human well-being. When a party official’s son is released from his habits and becomes a faithful husband and loving father, all the ideology in the world bows before such evidence.
Although the church in Vietnam has a history of 100 years, it seems so young. There are few gray heads: I’m the ancient one. This is a generation building a new foundation of advance. From here it will move into its next era. Like pastors and leaders in China, the Vietnamese are determined to follow Jesus in faith and to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. They love their country and they seek ways of affirming and giving recognition to a party whose track record has been less than decorous.
You think I was there to encourage? That’s true, but I came away feeling the kingdom is arriving, in such contrast to my North American home where many think they are fettered by secular society. Such mutterings in my homeland feel like self-pity especially after you’ve broken bread with a pastor released from seven years of imprisonment. He had no expression of being harshly treated, no words that mission is difficult, no pessimism that it can’t be done, no whining about being opposed.
My friends of many countries, please read with me a page from their history-in-the-making, their current talks of witness, their charitable love and their inclusive arms holding each other to Christ’s saving and uniting resurrected power. Jesus never promised ease. His kingdom which has come, is here and is coming, is not a tea party. It’s a kingdom in which his love, holiness and truth reign, quite above any exercise of national rule be it communist or democratic, in the East or West.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance