April 12, 2016

In the Shadow of the Pagoda

Post by Nancy Charles-Parker

World traveler and long-time supporter, Nancy Charles-Parker, often visits ministries she helps through Christian Aid Mission during her travels. Most recently, she journeyed to Southeast Asia, where she spent time with an indigenous ministry in Vietnam.

Nancy Charles-Parker in Hoi An city, central Vietnam

Nancy Charles-Parker in Hoi An city, central Vietnam

At a café in Vietnam, I sipped a bowl of pho while native missionary, "Pastor J," shared his story with me—how, as a teenager, he came to faith in the living God. He was later thrown into prison three times for his gospel witness after the South fell to the Communist North in 1975. During his first stint in prison, his wife supported the family by making and selling yogurt.

The amount of time Pastor J spent in prison hasn't lessened his resolve to share the gospel. To the contrary, he carries with him an air of invincibility. "What can they do to me?" I imagined him thinking.

In February, I visited Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, where I met Pastor J, along with another Christian Aid Mission-assisted native ministry leader.

The Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia

The Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia

I'd wanted to return to Southeast Asia since living there in the 1980s and 90s. Now a retired diplomat, I have the time to travel internationally.

As a long-time supporter of Christian Aid Mission, I try to visit at least one of the indigenous ministries to which I give during each of my annual overseas trips. I want to see how my money is being spent. Frankly, I've been amazed at what these groups accomplish with so little.

What local ministries in Nepal, Guatemala, or Vietnam are doing with my modest gifts encourages me to make fewer stops at Starbucks so I can support additional projects.

My adventure began in Cambodia, which appeared to enjoy more religious freedom than Laos or Vietnam. Perhaps it was the horrifying Killing Fields under the Pol Pot regime that convinced Cambodians that Buddhism, animism, and atheism weren't working. Perhaps it was Christ-followers' offer to help combat sex trafficking.

Near the renowned Angkor Wat complex, built by Hindu rulers between 1000 and 1100 A.D., is a poor fishing village on a lake that ebbs and flows depending on the rains. Here, where people float their homes up and down the lake to be near their fishing livelihood, I saw several signs of Christian involvement in education. Along with the Christian-run primary school, a structure that appeared to be a university outside the town of Siem Reap displayed a sign proclaiming "Christ is Lord."

Floating houses in a poor fishing community in Cambodia

Floating houses in a poor fishing community in Cambodia

In contrast, I saw scant evidence of overt Christian witness in the conservatively Buddhist country of Laos. Many young men from poorer homes serve in Buddhist temples to obtain an education. The Lao computer specialist who hosted me for dinner had studied with a monk for six years to learn English.

I saw far fewer Buddhist temples in Vietnam than I did in the other two countries. Per Lonely Planet, Vietnam is one of the world's least religious countries.

And yet, I saw large, colorful Catholic churches in most of Vietnam's major cities, from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. They were yellow in Ho Chi Minh, pink in Danang, white in Hoi An, and gray in Hanoi.

One four-story church with two big crosses deceptively portrays religious freedom.

Rose-colored Catholic church in Danang, Vietnam

Rose-colored Catholic church in Danang, Vietnam

Where the church was permitted before the Vietnam War, the government reluctantly permits it to function today. New churches, especially among Vietnam's 54 ethnic groups, are seriously discouraged.

Informal house churches, much like the ones in neighboring China, are growing and spreading, however.

These are the churches being planted by native missionaries like Pastor J. Their commitment to sharing the Good News in unevangelized areas of this 1,000-mile-long country of 93 million is palpable.

Men's dormitory at Bible college in Vietnam

Men's dormitory at Bible college in Vietnam

I toured the student dormitories at the Bible college started by Pastor J's ministry. They made my shared college dorm room and apartment in graduate school seem obscenely large in comparison. The men's dorm contains 16 bunkbed towers, stacked three beds high. The women's dorm contains 10 sets of bunkbeds. No frills, like dressers or desks—just the beds.

More students want to attend this college than can do so, as it is filled to capacity.

Students pay $100 per year to prepare to be church leaders in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Since most cannot afford this fee, Pastor J's wife raises funds to grant scholarships. Unfortunately, this year's fundraisers have not been as productive as his hardworking wife had hoped.

The cost of living has increased in Vietnam. With average salaries of $200 to $300 per month, many cannot afford to study full time.

Most Vietnamese families travel by motorcycle, as do the native missionaries supported by Christian Aid Mission

Most Vietnamese families travel by motorcycle, as do the native missionaries supported by Christian Aid Mission

Some who have graduated from the Bible school set out on motorcycles for Vietnam's Highlands, where they stay in remote villages for as long as permitted by the government, which regulates such things as the length of time outsiders may remain in ethnic villages.

In addition to the government's watchful eye other obstacles remain to the evangelization of Vietnam's 54 unreached minority groups. Bibles cannot be legally printed in ethnic languages. Another challenge is finding individuals trained, willing, and able to leave their jobs to go to these remote and underdeveloped areas. I learned that $5,000 will fund two "motorcycle missionaries" for an entire year.

Vietnam's ethnic minorities remain the poorest group in this long country. According to the World Bank, 46% live in poverty (compared with 8% of the Vietnamese majority). The Hmong people are the most well-known of the minority groups. Evangelists consider them a gateway tribe to the other unreached groups who've yet to hear the Good News.

Among these impoverished people, God is pleased to build His kingdom. Most of Vietnam's 200,000 Protestants are members of ethnic minority groups.

In the shadow of the pagoda, grows a spiritual house of "living stones," built on the unshakeable foundation of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

What a privilege to experience some of the challenges and victories of Christian Aid Mission-supported workers on the frontlines of this exciting work.