PHOENIX, AZ (EP) – America is headed back into Vietnam. But this time it will be with medical help and Bibles. Vietnam’s increasing openness is giving Christian ministries a chance to help heal the wounds of war, not only in Vietnam, but also in the U.S.
“A great division has existed all these years in the U.S., with the right on one side, the left on the other, and bewildered masses in between,” explains Dr. Larry Ward, who is coordinating private aid to Vietnam and working as a volunteer with NEED, a Phoenix-based ministry focusing on Vietnam. “There’s nothing that will close the gap for the American people except doing something together. Rhetoric won’t do it. We can do something positive to help.
Foreign missions work in Vietnam came to a halt in 1975 when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Ward escorted some 1300 people out of Vietnam and helped them find new lives in America. He also ran a rescue operation for Vietnam’s “boat people” who fled the country after the fall.
When he returned to Vietnam in 1979, it was with apprehension. “I expected hostility,” he admits. “It had been over four years since I had left Vietnam in the big wild rush with the others. When I went back I confess to wondering, ‘How will the people respond – the people left behind?’ My very first experience was this: I walked around a corner and there were 30 or 40 guys sitting outside what used to be the Bank of America, in an outside cafe drinking beer and coffee. I stopped in front of them and said ‘Good morning, how are you?’”
The men asked Ward where he was from, and he told them he hailed from the United States. “They started clapping, because I was from the United States of America. The only dirty looks I ever had in 31 trips since August of 1979 were when they thought I was a Russian. Especially on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, people are very friendly and will come up and say ‘Thank you.’”
The church in Vietnam has grown under oppression, says Ward. “I don’t think the pressure on the church has let up. It’s estimated that the church may be three times bigger than when we left it in April of 1975. People like myself helped much of the leadership escape, but we’re grateful for the ones who stayed behind with incredible courage.”
The communist government of Vietnam has only recently released South Vietnamese military chaplains, who were held in “re-education” camps for 13 years. The chief of chaplains is still being held. “I think in the minds of the Vietnamese this was the real enemy,” explains Ward. “Here were the guys whose faith – even in the prison camps – helped people find the Lord.”
The Vietnamese government welcomes the private aid provided by Christian organizations but turns its back on the religious goals of the relief workers. “We identify ourselves as Christians,” explains Ward. “We don’t play games. It appears the government is just going to close their eyes to that. It’s carefully ignored in all of the official discussions, but we’ve been totally upfront.”
A war fought with bombs, grenades and landmines left behind an estimated 60,000 amputees, including perhaps 16,000 crippled children. Many of the groups whose efforts Ward coordinates are providing wheelchairs, crutches, and artificial limbs.
“It is a beautiful significance in that we’re coming full circle,” observes Ward. “What became great evangelistic opportunities in Vietnam began in the late ’60s when an Alliance missionary begged for help for the disabled. I was World Vision’s overseas director then and began sending in wheelchairs and crutches. That opened the door, the church earned the right to be heard. We saw incredible things happen in evangelism during the dark days of the war. Thousands were won for Christ.”
Those kind of evangelistic opportunities may be opening up again, but Ward’s advice is to go slow. “The phone rings every day with people who want to go, but cautions need to be sounded for people going in. We have been totally upfront in announcing ourselves as Christians. We always check with churches to be sure we will not put them in danger by attending their services.
“One thing people have to be awfully careful about is taking official permission to see church leaders and then taking in Bibles without permission. When we were there in December the screws were being tightened. Someone had come in and brought hundreds of Bibles, bringing the church under new scrutiny. This is still a communist regime that sets people against other people. I tell people to exercise great caution; we come and go but the church has to stay there.”
The lack of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Vietnam makes official government aid impossible, so the private sector aid which Ward is coordinating (with the government’s encouragement) is vital. A number of Christian organizations are beginning work in Vietnam, though none have established a full-time presence there.