In a previous Dispatch, I identified the remarkable yet difficult terrain of Christian life in a Communist police state such as Vietnam. Tough and often unyielding, the government allows scattered opportunities for faith to sprout, yet at will denies religious freedom.
The week I met with the Ministry of Public Security an Australian evangelist, Nick Vujicic, had been speaking at stadium-filled rallies in Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City. As in so many other places, the Spirit works in ways surprising even to the most optimistic.
How did this come about?
It began with Le Phuoc Vu, a devout Buddhist; chair of a business group called Hoa Sen who partnered with First News and Vietnam Television (VTV) and was supported by others for this May event. (It’s important to note that the Vietnamese government owns the media.) As Reg Reimer * noted, sources, "close to the situation said that beside Mr. Vu, one of Vietnam’s wealthiest tycoons, an influential Catholic layman and a Communist Party official were the key initiators. If there were evangelical Christians behind it, they have chosen to remain very low key. "
As Lily and I drove the streets we saw billboards advertising these public events. Some 75,000 saw Nick in person while millions saw him on state-run television. That week.
We may never know why it was that a Buddhist would invite a Christian evangelist, but the impact was obvious. He told of his own challenges in growing up as child, having to overcome impossible physical circumstances, and the Vietnamese were drawn to his story. Nick – he was born without arms and with legs has surprisingly learned to swim, surf and sky dive – captivated the country. Today he is married and has a son.
I asked the Corporal of security what he thought of it all. He smiled. He too knew what the newspapers had been saying about this remarkable young man.
Reg Reimer noted: “Besides wide coverage in the electronic media, there were Nick billboards, banners, head bands, bracelets and T-shirts everywhere. . . .Vietnam’s Christians, both Catholic and evangelical, were elated. Christian leaders in Vietnam all use the word phep la, or miracle. Two miracles actually, they say. The first was that the evangelist should be allowed to come to communist Vietnam at all, and the second was that the authorities approved as Nick’s translator the young pastor newly installed in Hanoi’s main evangelical church.
"Nick talked about his own steep challenges in growing up as a child often bullied because of his appearance and handicaps. He once attempted suicide. He talked passionately about finding strength for not giving up, not losing hope, and for cherishing and pursuing hopes and dreams. He emphasized purpose in life! He was the finest example of the sweet aroma of Christ that a Christian could be."
Part of the agreement of his appearance was that he couldn’t speak of his faith. One night a little girl, physically challenged, much like Nick, met him. He said, "Do you know why I love God? Because heaven is real! One day when we get to heaven we are going to have arms and legs. And we are going to run, and we are going to play and we are going to race!”
It was reported by the media that "participants burst into tears." This was the only moment of testimony, and it was carried nation wide.
Reg continues: "Having been cautioned about not using certain words, Nick’s interpreter was momentarily hesitant. Nick urged him on! One of the organizers said later he was sure when he heard the words about God and heaven that there would be a “power outage", but there was not! Further, Nick’s books, translated into Vietnamese were on sale and have become best sellers. They are explicitly Christian.”
In Vietnam: A Communist police state, funded and organized by a Buddhist businessman.
As we were meeting with leaders in Vietnam, at the United Nations the Universal Periodic Review was presenting its findings of Vietnam to the world body. They challenged Decree ND-92, which now requires that a religious group must have operated for 20 years with local approval, without any violation, before that they get full legal recognition. This puts an enormous burden on churches.
Further, the UPR noted that on March 17th, this year, Hoang Van Ngai, a 39-year-old Christian, died while in police custody. Since he was an elder of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam – South, the commission noted that probably the reason he died was that he "refused to participate in corruption. . . He was savagely beaten and tortured by the police.” The police said that the cause of his death, in their words, was "suicide by self-electrocution."
In a land fought over by the French and Americans, it is pock-marked by bombings yet lush and fertile land, alive by its hard working people. Contradictions stand out. The church grows yet is pushed off stride by police interference. While it is not a simple situation, the footprints of the Spirit can be seen in many places and lives.
Reimer concludes his report with this reflection.
"Nick accomplished the goals of the event organizers and then some! From a Christian perspective, there could not have been any better preparation of the soil for the Gospel. This evangelist tilled and exposed fields ready to plant. Are Vietnam’s churches and Christians ready to sow and water the seed, and reap the harvest? Or to repeat an earlier metaphor, provide ‘water for thirsty people in the desert – very precious!’"
* Reg Reimer, missionary to Vietnam since 1966 and author of Vietnam’s Christians: A Century of Growth in Adversity (2011).
Brian C Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance