God Was Not Finished

The Vietnam Centennial 2011

By and

We were among seven missionaries captured by North Vietnamese forces when they overran Banmethuot in 1975. Among the captives the first day—soldiers and civilians waiting to see if they would be held longer or released—we noticed a tribesman. He had been taken from his home early that morning and had little clothing on. We did not know him, but he was obviously cold. And there we were with a suitcase, one that we had kept packed in case we would ever have to leave suddenly. Quietly, Lillian slipped out a shirt. He put it on and drifted away. We never saw him again until . . .

In 1911, Alliance missionaries first brought the gospel to Vietnam. Over the next six decades, Alliance members gave generously to support workers throughout the country, from the streets of Hanoi to remote villages. We were privileged to have had a part in it, bringing the good news to highland tribespeople, first to the Hre and then the Bunong (Mnong).

Our memories are mostly of the highlands. Banmethuot was where we had lived with our four children. Then, in the Tet Offensive of 1968 the mission compound was destroyed, and eight of our colleagues were killed. Our family was away at the time. For years I struggled with the question, “Why were our lives saved when theirs were taken?”

Back in Banmethuot after the compound was rebuilt, we lived in the “pink” house (there were also a green and a yellow house). Behind us were the graves of the martyrs; out the front door, we could see the Raday church; across the street, the Bible school; and next to us, the new leprosarium. Banmethuot was safer than Bunong country. Though we couldn’t go to Bunong villages, the government’s relocation policy brought many Bunong refugees close to us.

Our days were full. We had devised an alphabet and primers to teach reading. Our translation team had worked hard, producing portions of the New Testament, which the Bible Society printed separately. We had also published a hymnal (160 songs, 40 responsive readings). Periodically, Richard flew into Bunong country (the roads were unsafe) to teach.

But it all ended in March 1975. There was a huge battle, and Banmethuot was overrun. We were taken captive and held for close to eight months. We never had a time of closure with our Mnong people. Would we ever see them again? Would we be reunited with our four children, who were away at Dalat School? What happened to the Bunong Scriptures? Our own manuscripts were confiscated and never returned. Vietnam was closed to foreign missionary work, and we were reassigned to Burkina Faso.

Years later, after we retired, Bunong refugees began coming to North Carolina. To our amazement we learned that our translation helper, Nkem (pictured with Richard below left), along with several other men, had continued working on the Scriptures. The New Testament was finished; we held a copy in our hands! And someone had found a way to reprint the hymnbook. They had preserved the books by hiding them in the ground or in the hollows of trees. In time, the entire Bunong Old Testament also was finished.

Back to Celebrate

If there was to be a centennial celebration of Alliance work in Vietnam, of course, we wanted to go! Friends offered to help with the expense, and our home church was praying. In June 2011 we boarded a plane for Vietnam. For the first few days we toured with other former workers, visiting flourishing churches and the new Bible school. What memories came back!

The celebration in Danang was in an indoor sports stadium seating 12,000. Vietnamese and tribespeople trooped in by the busload. Of just the Bunong, there were 700 in 30 buses. What a reunion it was! They swarmed around us, recalling events of the past: We had prayed for them in the hospital, we had given blood for their son, we had given clothing, we had taught them in the very first Bible school. They remembered our four children by name. We heard that 40 percent of the people group is now Christian.

Dr. Gary Benedict and Dr. Tom Stebbins preached, and Rev. Truong, the president of the church, reviewed the history of the C&MA in Vietnam, all to the glory of God. The missionaries sang in Vietnamese: “’Tis better far to follow Jesus no matter where His hand may lead.” A choir from Hanoi sang the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and hundreds of people responded for salvation at the close of an evangelistic message. The Gideons distributed thousands of New Testaments at the celebration, the first permitted in 36 years.

We headed for the highlands, where the Bunong were planning a big meeting. Some tribal friends drove us from Banmethuot to Bu Dak, where it was to take place. Imagine our surprise to find a new large church, with rows of greeters in traditional dress lined up on either side of the approach. Of course, we ended up in the front row.

The man in charge of the celebration was Rev. Rmah Loan, the leader of all the Bunong churches. To our great surprise we found that he was the man we had given a shirt to after we had been taken prisoner 36 years earlier. It had been he who had assembled a team of Bunong believers to finish the translation of the Scriptures.

What a reception he gave us! There were choirs of children, youth, adults and preachers. After singing, each group presented us with flowers, and one choir even gave us a garland for our necks. The Scriptures were read. A pastor gave a history of the Bunong work and how Richard had put their language in writing so that now they had God’s Word. There had been years of difficulty. But the church had grown tremendously.

Then Richard addressed the group, speaking on the theme: “We are fellow workers with God.” Some seemed surprised that he could preach in Bunong after 36 years away.

At the close, the congregation was invited to “greet” us. Then began a tremendous outpouring of gifts. I have never had so many handbags placed around my neck and shoulders, plus beads of all sorts. A woven skirt was wrapped around me (and the giver had thoughtfully brought two safety pins to secure it). Richard had dozens of shoulder bags draped around his neck, too. And then a tribal vest was put on him, and then another on top of that. When told that too many were around us, the people said, “But we have to at least touch their hands!”

We’ll never forget being with them again and seeing what God had done.

In 1975 there were 60,000 believers in Vietnam. Today there are 1.2 million, most of whom are part of the Tin Lanh (Alliance) Church.

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