I will never forget the milestones in my life.
After the Fire Red Summer of 1972, I began sixth grade at a high school in Quảng Ngãi.
One day I happened to read a handout from a Christian organization that introduced me to the road to salvation by Jesus Christ. After finishing the booklet, I decided to register for correspondence classes organized by the Sion Bible Study School.
After one year of study, I took the class “Biblical Search for the Source of Life” which was given by the Manila, Philippines Christian Broadcasting Network. At the same time, I ventured into the Christian church at 143 Phan Bội Châu, Quảng Ngãi, to participate in the worship services and activities of the congregation.
My faith was nurtured thanks to the work of Pastor Nguyễn Phú Ngọc, Assistant Pastor Nguyễn Ngọc Dư, and members of the church. With time, my spiritual life grew thanks to the lessons I received at Sunday School. The image of the head of the Sunday School, teacher Đức Na, wearing a white shirt and conservative necktie, as he grabbed and shook the bells to assemble the classes, stays with me in my recollections of those younger years.
Back then, my family did not put up any opposition to my Christian worship. My father was a teacher who was transferred to the School District of Quảng Ngãi on Phan Bội Châu Street, not too far from the church. Though he was not Christian, he had many occasions to be in contact with several people from the church and concluded that the Christian faith might be good for me. Thus he allowed me to participate in church activities.
As I observed the manner and character of the pastors and missionaries, I sometimes wondered if someday I could be a pastor just like them.
I still remember the Youth meetings each Sunday afternoon. The Youth committee invited Trần Trọng Luật, an officer in the Army stationed in the city, to share the Word of Christ. Sometimes, Miss Chung thị Hoàng Bích, spokeswoman for the Source of Life radio station, visited and shared with us.
From time to time, I stood in the hallway of the church to look towards the city park. There, friends my age participated in scouting activities and enjoyed many kinds of inviting games. Looking at their khaki uniforms and their jaunty hats, I quietly dreamed of being with them. Oh, how much fun it would be!
When such thoughts occurred to me, my inner self would gently remind me, “Joining the scouts would be fun, but they offer no salvation, so where would your soul go?” Thus I quietly parted with these secret wishes to continue activities with the church.
The years 1972 to 1975 were when the Word of God was planted in my young soul. The summer of 1974, I joined the Bible class conducted at the church by Pastor Kiều Toản.
In March 1975, I was in the ninth grade at the Trần Quốc Tuấn high school, and the country prepared to take a new path. The war situation was boiling, and the Western Highlands region was no longer under the administration’s control. At seven o’clock one night, Colonel Lê Văn Ngọc, the District Administrator, went on the radio and ordered everyone to evacuate the city because the army could no longer guarantee our safety. I followed the crowd evacuating from Quảng Ngãi to Đà Nẵng in a time of historical change.
With him, my father had my sister Hoa, her boyfriend Hùng, who was a student of the Huế medical school, and me. He had us run towards the bridge of Trà Khúc. Crossing the main intersection of the city, we saw the army camp burning. The soldiers had ignited the Hoa Lư camp and retreated in panic. After the three-way intersection of Sơn Tịnh, my father took two ounces of gold from his pocket and then, sobbing, said to my sister, “Take this gold and leave Quảng Ngãi with Hùng and Hưng to save your lives. I must stay here because I cannot leave your mother and younger brother alone in Mộ Đức.” He wiped his tears and parted with us at eight o’clock that night.
We continued walking, surrounded by the sounds of gunfire. The army from the North had begun firing rockets into the city. On the road, I witnessed untold numbers of people falling to gunfire, especially in the districts of Bình Liên and Bình Sơn. I panicked when I saw the corpses, too many to count. On Highway 1, corpses had been run over by tanks and crushed thin as banana leaves. There were soldiers of the South Vietnamese army, killed by bullets yet still standing on GMC trucks. Scattered on both sides of the road were corpses with truncated limbs, and covered in blood. It was a nightmarish scene, and I will probably not forget those atrocious images as long as I live!
After running from Quảng Ngãi to the beach of Chu Lai, I was somehow separated from my sister, even though we had been holding hands.
To reach Chu Lai, we had run an entire day and night. Now, I stood on the bridge of the pier. In front of me was a navy ship that I later found out bore the number 505. It was then about seven o’clock in the evening. All around me, soldiers and refugees tried to fight their way on board. A sea of people trampled each other in order to climb onto the opened ship. It was chaotic. I was stuck in that sea of humanity, thinking I was going to be suffocated to death.
As the line between life and death blurred, I lifted this prayer to Jesus, “O Lord, if you will save me from this predicament, I will give my life to serve You.”
Suddenly, there was a loud explosion. Perhaps it was a soldier throwing his grenade in order to create an opening so that he could get on the ship. People in front of me fell like banana trees. Their blood splattered on me, drenching my shirt. People beside and behind me fled in panic. Mustering all my courage, I jumped across the bodies and onto the ship. In my mind at that moment was this strange thought: “If you want to live, you must step over death.”
After reaching the bottom of the ship, I climbed back up to the deck. Looking at my shirt, I was surprised by the bright-red bloodstains. I removed it and asked a soldier on the ship, “Uncle, can you look to see if I am wounded anywhere?“ He examined me from head to toe, then said, “You are very lucky! So many people died at the entrance to the ship, but you were able to get on board without being injured. This truly is a miracle.”
I met my sister’s boyfriend Hùng on the ship, but my sister Hoa was not there. We didn’t know whether she was dead or alive in the sea of people on the shore.
Thus I escaped disaster on the beach of Chu Lai, and ship number 505 brought me to the port of Tiên Sa, Đà Nẳng. From there, Hùng took me to Vũng Tàu by way of the sea, then on to Saigon. God is very merciful. He arranged for me to meet Miss Trần thị Quang Toàn, Pastor Trần Đào’s secretary, who had guided me in the Bible classes at the Source of Life radio station on Lê văn Duyệt street. Now the street is named 3/2. Miss Toàn helped me find my brother, who was then a specialist at radio station Chí Hoà. I remained in Saigon to witness the chaos leading up to April 30th when the war ended. Not long after that, I returned to Quảng Ngãi in a freight truck. This was when a new chapter opened in the history of the church and the country!
I will never forget those days at the end of March 1975, and the prayer I lifted to the Lord on that terrifying night. I know I belonged to Him from that moment. I don’t know why the friend who gave me the booklet on the Good News in 1972 still does not believe in Jesus. But I received Him in my younger years as a result of a flyer given to me by a Christian congregation. Why did I believe in Him as my Savior? In His Word, I found the answer:
“Things that are sacred are only known to GOD. But those things that have been revealed, which are the words in this book of the law, belong to us and to our children and grandchildren throughout generations, for us to keep, obey, and follow.“ Deuteronomy 29:29
“You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. Then my father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” John 15:16
However, after the events of April 30, 1975, my religious life quickly declined. I did not keep up with my church activities. My family moved from the town of Quảng Ngãi to the countryside of Mộ Đức. I pursued my studies at the secondary school of Nam Đàn in the province of Mộ Đức. In 1978 I passed the entrance exam for the math section of the School of Education, University of Tây Nguyên. Right after that, I joined the army in response to the call for the general mobilization of the entire population. The borders to the West and South and North were under siege. In the army, I received training for four months to help defend the borders at Quảng Ngãi. I was in a class of two hundred new recruits and had earned a special place among them. I was selected for higher education and received the guarantee that after three years of military duty, I could go back to my university studies.
After military school, I was chosen to work in the intelligence unit of border patrol 638 in Qui Nhơn. I was lucky because almost all my friends who were recruits at the same time were sent to the frontlines in Kampuchea. Some did not come back or came back as wounded warriors. I could take it easy in Qui Nhơn, protecting foreign ships when they came into port. When no ship was in, I combed the coast in a canoe.
In 1981, due to ill health, I could not train to be an officer and be discharged by my unit. I returned to the University of Tây Nguyên to resume my studies, but that year, the university did not have a math section. I was transferred to the math section of the School of Education, University at Qui Nhơn. It was here that God’s grace brought me back to Him and the church body.
In 1982, I was attending school and teaching at Biên Cương street, Sixth Quarter, Qui Nhơn. One Sunday morning, I happened to go to the Protestant church in the Sixth Quarter. A familiar hymn rising from inside the church startled me. It was hymn number 267: “Only Jesus Is My Savior.” It was extraordinary: as I listened to that hymn, an awakening stirred my soul. “The Lord is calling me to go back to Him. And He alone is my life-saving buoy.” I walked into the small sanctuary of the Sixth Quarter and knelt to pray. Tears suddenly streamed down my face. “My Lord, I am the prodigal son who today asks to come back to You. I do not want to continue without You. Please hold me with You from now on.” It was then that I said goodbye to the pleasures of this world in order to place myself in the everlasting will of the Lord.
My four years of studies at the School of Education in Qui Nhơn and my return to church are a period filled with special memories. During that time, I had the privilege to hear sermons and testimonies by many of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the summertime, Miss Quách Thúy and I studied the Bible and participated in small groups at the Christian Church at 7 Cao Vân street in Saigon. Here I registered to be in the class “Mature Christians” led by Mr. Trương Văn Hoàng, secretary for the church. During this period, a wave of renewal hit the church. Receiving the spiritual nurturing and hearing Pastor Hạ pray and preach made it a wonderful time for me.
In Qui Nhơn, one of the many lessons from the Bible that I still remember was conveyed by this passage:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field. Someone found it, reburied it, joyfully went back home, sold all his inheritance, and bought the field. The kingdom of heaven is like a trader who looked for a precious gem, found it, then sold all his inheritance to buy it.” Matthew 13:44-46
Mr. Võ Minh Hùng visited me from Pleiku and shared those three verses with me and my fellow Christians. After he finished, I told myself, “That’s right, I did find that precious gem. How can the glory of this world compare?” At that time, Hùng was a very handsome and fair-skinned young man.
He taught with depth and clarity. In fact, he was a seminary school student! He went with us to a picnic at a home for people with leprosy in Qui Hòa, and throughout our trip, he shared the word of life.
What he said challenged me and gave me courage for correct decision-making under the trying circumstances that were to come.
While I was still a student, Trần Văn Thanh, a student of math from Nha Trang, and I organized Bible study groups in our dormitories. This went against the rules of the school. Our fellow Christian students sneaked out on Christmas night to attend service at various churches — a dangerous thing to do because it went against the school rules. Christian literature was distributed in secret among the students as part of our activities.
When I was called into the student office to explain my actions, a teacher in charge of regulating thoughts had these words of persuasion and threat for me: “If you continue spreading the culture of Christianity, then it’s best that you quit your studies. If you do not, then we will make you quit. You have one week to decide and give us an answer.”
I returned to the dormitory with many thoughts and prayed. I was in Practical Application training at the Quang Trung Level Three School. What would my future be if I left school? My family would certainly never approve. Did I have enough faith to believe that God would take care of me and secure my future? This trial was so big, I wondered how I would overcome it.
This was indeed one of the most difficult times in the life of a twenty-four-year-old.
That week I participated in a group gathering for youth on Saturday night at the church on 71 Hai Bà Trưng street. A young man stood up and lifted a song to glorify the Lord: “The sparrow is under the watchful eye of the Lord, how can He abandon me?” This is strange, I thought. Is this brother singing this song to remind me of something? After a week of reflection, I handed my withdrawal from the school. “So be it; that’s my destiny,” I thought.
Before I said good-bye to my friends at the School of Education, the vice-dean called me to his office and said, “I am very sorry you have to quit this school, in spite of being a promising student. For you, we and this school are but an illusion and only your faith is real. So I can only encourage you to complete the course that you have chosen.”
And that is how I began my life like a dreamer: I was expelled from the school. After that, my family carried out the order of isolation issued by my father, and everyone stopped helping me financially. The word of God came to me in that moment: “But remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can’t stand up against it. When you are tempted, He will show you a way out so that you will not give into it.” I Corinthians 10:13
By the grace of God, I overcame the hardships that resulted from following Him in the years after that. Looking back at the thorny roads I went on, I am amazed by His infinite grace. Nowadays, I am reaching my sixties, and my children are all educated and grown. I know that God is faithful, and those who believe in Him will not be ashamed of their choice. These words from a song always echo in my soul: “My future still has many challenges, but I do not worry. Because I know the One who holds it, and I know He goes ahead of me.”
Translated by LINDA NGUYEN DANG LIEM