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A Child's Return

Vietnam, 1970

During the difficult years of civil war between North and South Vietnam our family struggled to survive. We lived in Central Vietnam where the fighting was the heaviest. Raids on our village were common. Explosions and sniper fire were a normal part of our lives.

My father, a South Vietnamese soldier, usually slept at a nearby army camp at night. One night, however, he stayed home. He was sick with malaria. That night the enemy invaded our village. We hid my father in the bomb shelter under the floor of our house and covered the square opening with a round diesel barrel. But the barrel wasn’t big enough to cover the corners of the opening, so my father was found and captured. I remember seeing them tie his hands behind his back, blindfold him, and beat him with the butts of their guns as they pushed him away. For many years, he was declared “missing and presumed dead.” After the war was over, my family in Vietnam learned that my father had died from mistreatment and sickness shortly after he was captured, and was buried in the jungle by a friend.

Fortunately, my father had become a Christian before he was captured. In his travels as a soldier he had come upon a Christian meeting somewhere, and he surrendered his life to Christ. Though he didn’t live to see it, that decision made a huge impact on the lives of his family.

Our father’s capture was very traumatic for all of us, especially for my mother. Our home was pretty much destroyed by bullets and shrapnel, and we needed a safer place to live. God provided through our father’s pastor. Pastor Ba divided our family among his grown children’s families. My older brother, my older sister, and my mother each went to live with a different family. Because we were too little to work for our keep, Binh and I went to live at a Christian orphanage in Cam Ranh City—where the director was also a son of Pastor Ba.

Life at the Orphanage

I was five and Binh was three when my older sister took us to the orphanage. She stayed with us a few days, then one day while we were playing with the other children, she slipped away. When I realized she was gone, I chased after her down the long gravel driveway of the orphanage. But she was already too far away. I screamed and cried and was told to stop crying or I would never see my sister again. I tried to stop crying, stifling my tears the best I could. I never saw my sister again.

Because we were young, Binh and I made friends quickly with the other children in the orphanage. Each child came to the orphanage with a different tragic story of his/her own. The majority of us were not true orphans; we had either a father or a mother still living. Some, though, were true orphans who had wandered the streets, surviving the best they could before they were taken in at the orphanage. Separated from our families, we bonded with each other quickly, and became like a family.

Life at the orphanage was pretty busy. We went to school half a day and helped with various chores the other half. We didn’t have gourmet food or lots of meat to eat, but we had everything we needed. During the rainy season, a large sandy field behind the orphanage turned into a pond filled with fish, noisy frogs, and water spinach—all good sources of nutrition for us. Because the orphanage was supported by Christians, we attended church, Sunday school, and summer vacation Bible school—and we loved it all, particularly the activities of vacation Bible school. The smell and sight of crayons still remind me of the special times when we got to color beautiful pictures that went along with the great stories from the Bible.

The orphanage had actually been built by American servicemen stationed at the Cam Ranh Military Base. They had seen children living on the streets, picking through trash for something to eat, so they looked for ways to help. Chaplains from the base organized work parties of servicemen who came and built one cottage after another, using war surplus materials. The men and women who came had a way of seeking out the children who needed love the most and giving them attention. Although we didn’t know each other’s languages, the American servicemen and other Christian friends had no trouble communicating God’s love to us.

I also felt loved by the orphanage staff who worked hard to develop in us a heart for God. Many children, myself included, came to trust in Jesus and follow His ways. Although I was happy in the big orphanage family, I always thought about my own family and about being with them. On one occasion Binh and I were taken to see our mother and brother who were living in Saigon. We were so happy to see them! I can still remember the special treat they bought for us—a Vietnamese-style French bread sandwich like what my father used to buy for us.

It was good that on this trip I was able to learn more about the death of my sister—the person who had left us at the orphanage. About the time of her death, I had chased her apparition in my dreams. My heart ached for her and I missed her so much. I felt her spirit was trying to say goodbye to me. I look back with gratitude for having had this amazing experience.

As children, we pretty much ignored the war—until the North Vietnamese troops came farther south, taking over every city in their path. Military personnel started to retreat, chaos spread, and people started to panic and run for their lives. Cam Ranh City could not escape the overwhelming flood of refugees heading south. One day when we arrived at school, we found the building full of injured and hurting refugees. That was the end of schooling for us—and the end of the peaceful life we had known at the orphanage.

A New Life in America

The story of our exodus from Vietnam is a separate, wonderful story of God’s miraculous care for a group of children, for as South Vietnam fell to the North in 1975, the entire Cam Ranh City Christian Orphanage escaped by boat. We eventually made it to the U.S., landing at Ft. Chaffee military base in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I turned ten years old toward the end of our exodus to America. The arrival of orphans made headline news and adoption requests began to come in. But we were too new to the U.S. and too afraid to be separated from each other, so God again miraculously provided a wonderful home for us at Buckner Baptist Children’s Home in Dallas, Texas.

During my teenage years at Buckner, I went through a short period when I felt sorry for myself, envying other kids, wishing for parents of my own and for things to be different. But I began to realize that the experiences of my past were opportunities to build and strengthen my character. With God’s help, I was able to rid myself of the resentment and bitterness that had been forming in my heart, and to have a new outlook on life. I realized that though my family was not by my side, I was special to God. The wisdom He gave me helped me focus on others who might need a friend.

After graduating from university in 1988, I married Jonathan, a man with whom I shared a desire to serve God through foreign missions. In order for Jonathan to conduct research for his Ph.D. in Fisheries and International Development, we moved to the Philippines. When we found out we were going to the Philippines, our family and friends began praying with us that this would be a chance to see my family in Vietnam again. I had always dreamed and prayed that someday I would get to see my mother again, but that dream always seemed remote. Now, God was doing what had seemed impossible to me.

Welcome Home!

Not only did we get to go to Vietnam, we went there in style! We were invited to visit the University of Agriculture and Forestry in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Our kind hosts took us on several field trips for Jonathan to observe fisheries in Vietnam, and we saw many interesting sites, including people living in floating houses with their livelihood (fish cages) underneath. When the educational tour was over, the university took us to my family’s home in Long Khanh in a Ford Bronco—a real luxury in a country full of bicycles, motorcycles, and old, unreliable Russians buses.

In 1975, my family in Vietnam had thought that Binh and I had died, when a plane loaded with orphans fleeing Vietnam crashed upon takeoff. But, after 20 years of separation, here I was, standing in front of them. All we could do at first was stare at each other without saying anything because of the deep emotions we were all feeling.

Jonathan and I got to spend an entire month with my family. Everyone in the community was excited and curious about this American who had come to their small town. My family put their livelihood—making fresh noodles by hand—on hold to visit with us. We were so moved when we found out that my mother had sold some gold earrings so she would have money to buy us special treats. Every day something new would turn up on the table in our room. Her dream of seeing her daughter again had come true, and this was her rare chance to be “Mom” to us. She would hug my arm and sing Vietnamese Christian songs. During the first days we were together, she would come towards me with her face cocked to one side, smiling, as if wondering if it were really true that her daughter was right there beside her.

A Benediction

Since our first visit, Jonathan and I and our three children have now returned to Vietnam many times. Vietnam has improved economically and so has my Vietnam family. I am so thankful that God allowed my mother to live, despite all the challenges she has faced in her life—hunger, malaria, the death of her husband and three oldest children, and the breakup of her family. To get to know her and learn about my family background is an opportunity I never thought I would have. Mom is now in her 80s. She is getting weaker, and her heart and mind are pure and childlike. I pray that during this last part of her life her journey will be smooth, and that she will be at peace.

Each of us starts out in life on a quest for happiness and meaning. On our journey we pass over shining mountaintops and through dark valleys. Through it all, we find out who we are and what we are made of. Along the way, we learn and grow and discover that God was there from the beginning—and that He is able to do far more than we ask or imagine. Returning to Vietnam and to my mother’s heart has been a blessing beyond my highest imagination!

(The God who is in his holy dwelling place is the father of the fatherless and the defender of widows. [Psalm 68:5 GOD’S WORD® Translation ©1995] Loi Beth and her husband Jonathan, along with their three children, live in East Asia where they work to make people’s lives better. She values the closeness she now has with her Vietnam family. As a mother of three children, she wants to leave a heritage of gratitude and love for the Lord that was her own heritage as an orphan child. God has proven Himself to be the “father of the fatherless and the defender of widows” in this true story of God’s love and grace.)

Article Link: http://ccmusa.org/read/read.aspx?id=chg20120202
To reuse online, please credit Challenger, Apr-Jun 2012. CCMUSA.