As a youngster, David would have considered himself an unlikely candidate to be a missionary. As he comes to the end of his year in Vietnam, he fondly recalls the highlights of his time in Vietnam and the many people whose lives he has been part of.
A New Beginning
As a youngster, David told himself he would never leave his home country. The prospect of learning a foreign language and living in another culture was a daunting prospect for a young man who’d grown up in a village of 2000 people.
It’s a far cry from his life now, thousands of kilometres away in northern Vietnam. David has lived overseas for nearly a year and become heavily involved in the community and the activities of his local church, speaking the language well.
“The best thing about being here is meeting with Vietnamese people,” he said. “Whether they’re Christians or non-believers, they’re good hosts. They’re friendly and welcoming, and the local believers quickly integrated me into their church.”
David arrived in Vietnam almost a year ago. After three months, he was not only involved in the activities of his local church; he was also teaching English and making trips to encourage believers in a rural province. “So many opportunities came up naturally,” he said.
“I think God planned it in advance. For example, after only three weeks here, I was asked whether I would like to teach English. One day later, I taught a two-hour English class. All I had was an exercise book and a few materials.”
David was nervous when he entered the class, but soon began to enjoy himself. “The students were kind and easy to teach and very willing to learn,” he said. “One of the highlights of my experience was the day I was invited by the students to lunch after a class. The 20 students were from an ethnic minority group and I was treated to my first Vietnamese lunch.”
David now attends a weekly young adult’s Bible study group, a Vietnamese church and once in a while goes to different house churches. He is also part of a team that carries out volunteer work in an orphanage once a month.
“When I arrived here, I tried my best to learn the language and to integrate into the local community as much as possible,” he said. The hours that he invested have paid dividends, as he has grasped some of the language and is well regarded by his network of contacts.
David also enjoyed becoming involved in Christmas celebrations organised by the churches, especially at one of the rural provinces. “For the Vietnamese church, Christmas is an opportunity to evangelise. They don’t have a family gathering, they go out and reach others for Christ,” he said.
“The small group I was part of asked whether I would like to go to a Christmas celebration in one of the provinces.” As part of the celebration, there were gift bags organised for non-believers. David was asked whether he would help wrap the gift bags. He also helped look after the children during the event, but was worried by the initial lack of attendees.
“The stage was set up and when it was time for people to arrive, there was almost no one around. I was worried that people wouldn’t come,” he said. “Slowly but surely, all the chairs were occupied and it became really crowded. The whole front yard was full and there were even people standing outside. People stood outside the property watching the stage through gaps in the fence.
“When I saw this, it reminded me of the time of the New Testament, when the masses gathered around trying to hear and get a glimpse of Jesus. For most of those there, it was the first time they’d heard of the real reason for Christmas.”
The Christmas event consisted of a choir dressed as angels wearing the white coloured version of the Vietnamese traditional dress, the áo dài. During the performance of the Christmas story, the actors wore clothes of some of the ethnic minorities. For instance Joseph wore a Hmong outfit. The children also did a skit.
“You should have seen their faces. After the audience heard the Christmas message, so many people left smiling and happy,” he said.
The Workers are Few
David volunteers at a church in Vietnam. He has shared the joy and the pain that comes from volunteering in such a situation. In December, he watched in amazement as 700 people packed into a courtyard to watch a presentation of the Christmas story on the stage. This was followed by a sermon from a Vietnamese preacher.
About 400 people made decisions to become believers, but without believers to follow them up and disciple them, many soon fell away. It was a situation that was painful for the church leaders. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” is a Bible verse that could well apply to this scenario.
“About 400 people said they wanted to become believers during the Christmas celebrations, but there were problems with follow up and that was one of my biggest worries,” he said.
“In the church culture in Vietnam, very few people experience one-on-one follow up and as a result, they’re not equipped to pass this on to others. There’s a lack of training about what Christians should do when someone becomes a believer, and a lack of knowledge about how to absorb them into the church community.”
One experience that David considers a highlight was when he was asked to share at the local church’s young adult group on the connection between “God is love” and outreach. The talk occurred towards the end of his year. “They assigned a translator for me and I produced a hand out and a PowerPoint in both Vietnamese and English,” he said.
A friend pointed out that David was acting as a bridge between foreigners and locals, when he spoke to about 60 young people at the event. “I was told that my presence marked the first time youth from the international church joined the youth of the local church,” he said.
“My opening sentence was in Vietnamese, so I confused the translator. I thought it was nice to say something in Vietnamese as a little introduction.” David’s experience in Vietnam hasn’t always been easy, and at first he struggled with the fact that daily life in the country takes place in the public area.
“When you go outside, everything is constantly moving around you and it’s hard to relax,” David said. “Everything takes place in public.”
“When you pass a shop, you might see the owner sitting on the floor eating lunch with their family. You might see the shop attendant taking a nap on a mattress at the back of the shop. It was difficult adjusting to that at first.”
Sometimes David doubted the contribution he was making to the church groups that he attended, whether anything he was doing was having an impact.
“For a long while, I wasn’t doing much more than just turning up,” he said. “It took me six months to make sense of anything they were saying.” When I point out that attending a weekly meeting without fail speaks volumes to those involved, David concedes that faithful involvement does help build relationships.
A memory that comes to mind happened not long after he first arrived, was when David was asked to help to wrap some presents as gifts for small group leaders. They would be distributed as part of a Thanksgiving celebration of the young adults at the local church.
“I was asked to wrap gifts during Thanksgiving time,” he said. “It was something easy that I was happy to do. The next thing I know, there was talk about me doing a task that was apparently menial. I was uncomfortable about the attention I received, but I realised later on that it helped the local believers build their trust in me.”
David’s advice for short-term missionaries is this:
“Become involved in the activities of the local church. Learn and practice the language. Faithfully turn up to the church services, young adults groups, prayer meetings. Share your life with the local people, and make the most of your time.”