Vietnam Missions

Why We Support Vietnam Churches

By John Ahlborn

The West Ohio Conference invited veterans of the Vietnam war to join a group of clergy to tour the country of Vietnam in January 2006. The stated purpose of the trip was to provide “closure” for veterans. The actual purpose was to demonstrate support for the fledging United Methodist Church in Vietnam which was illegal and operating “underground”.

Our in-country hosts were Vietnamese husband and wife, Ut and Karen To. Both are ordained UMC ministers and were leaders of the United Methodist movement in Vietnam. The group (seven veterans, wives of two veterans, three clergy and a seminary student) attended a few meetings prior to the trip to discuss the culture and action to take or not take if challenged by authorities, especially when associating with, or involved in Christian activities.

We arrived in Hanoi on January 6, 2006. We visited several sites in Hanoi including the “Hanoi Hilton” where many downed aircrew members were held as Prisoners of War. A bus took us to experience the beauty of Halong Bay on the Gulf of Tonkin.

Enroute to our departure location, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), we visited Hue, Da Nang, and Can To and explored the Mekong Delta while staying in Ho Chi Minh City.

We were able to attend and participate in a number of worship services held in homes, garage attics and private restaurant rooms following a meal. Vietnamese worshipers and theology students from all over the area would attend these services, some traveling great distances on a moped or bicycle. The services were conducted in Vietnamese, but most of the hymns were familiar, so they sang in Vietnamese and we sang in English.

In 1968/69 I was stationed outside the city of Kontum, which was the capitol of Kontum Province in the Central Highlands. Kontum Province shared its western border with both Laos and Cambodia. At that time, the city had a strong Roman Catholic presence—two churches, a large orphanage, and a leper colony. (Yes, a leper colony, which I did not visit.) At the time of our visit in 2006, the Vietnamese government did recognize the Roman Catholic Church as a legitimate entity.

I was anxious to see Kontum again, but we could not get travel approval.

We departed Ho Chi Minh City late on January 18 after a well-attended meal. Unfortunately, one of the Vietnamese gentlemen who actually flew down from Hanoi to help see us off, recognized a man he saw at the airport in Hanoi who was now overly interested in our gathering. He reported his suspicions to Ut who immediately disappeared. Ut and Karen had escape routes and safe houses if they felt the government moving in. Ut went underground for several weeks following this incident. We missed saying goodbye to him.

We did get to see Ut and Karen again at the West Ohio Annual Conference the following year. They reported that the number of congregations in Vietnam were growing rapidly. I asked Ut if he thought he would be able to start a congregation in Kontum. He said he was sure he could. I saw him again at Annual Conference the following year and asked if he were able to get a church going in the Kontum area. He said, “Yes, Two of them.” At that time, $1200 would support a congregation for a year. Since then, Grace UMC has provided $2500 a year to support the two new churches in Kontum.

In the years following our trip, the Vietnamese government decided that the United Methodist Church was not a threat a allowed an open church “headquarters” in Ho Chi Minh City indicating a recognition of the Church.