Reg Reimer, World. Relief Canada president, served as a missionary to Vietnam for nine years before the Communist takeover forced him to flee the country. This summer, he returned for two weeks. Here is his account:
On the surface, it seems little has changed in the thriving market of Dalat, the mountain town where we first studied the Vietnamese language 22 years ago. Vendors, often ruddy-faced children, sat behind baskets heaped with fresh loaves of French bread. Chattering market women spread bright displays of fruits and vegetables before them. Children asked us “Lien so? [Soviets?]” “No,” we replied, “we’re Canadians.” Heads turned toward us approvingly. We felt so much at home and welcome.
The combination of relief and optimism we sense is a result of doi moi, Vietnam’s version of glasnost and perestroika. It’s a most welcome development after 14 years of harsh and austere Marxist rule in the formerly free-wheeling South Vietnam. However, the current optimism belies the suffering of recent years. Things are not quite the same as before.
Already ravaged by the war, Vietnam’s economy has been brought to its knees by the doctrinaire application of Marxism and other failed policies. Now it hopes to return to a market economy, but the necessary reforms are painful for the many poor. Floating the local currency, the dong, so that it approaches the free-market exchange rate, partially accounts for an 800 percent inflation rate over last year. A government teacher or bureaucrat earns the equivalent of 15 Canadian dollars per month, while a pound of meat or coffee costs about one dollar.
Many are unemployed. Young men squat by the dozens on city streets, waiting for better days. Cyclo (pedicab) drivers volunteer that everything, including corruption, is worse than during the previous regime, and appearances tend to confirm this.
Why is a country so rich in natural and human resources in such bad shape? Overpopulation (64 million people in an area about half the size of Saskatchewan) is one reason. Also, Vietnam’s leaders now freely admit to the failure of their Marxist economic experiments. And regrettably, Vietnam has not been able to break the habit of war. While no one regretted Vietnam’s overthrow of the murderous Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia, the free world has totally isolated Vietnam for its decade-long occupation of that country. Vietnamese officials hope the recent withdrawal of troops from Cambodia will result in help from the West.
A Kinder Regime?
In the past two years, thousands of government functionaries and military officers of the old regime have been released from prison. In 1986 I met with authorities and asked that 20 evangelical pastors be released. On this visit, only two remain in prison. Amnesty International reports that Vietnam established a criminal code in 1986 and a criminal procedure in 1989, two giant steps forward for human rights.
But Vietnam is still a long way from a Polish-type experiment with pluralism. No one is allowed to challenge the party’s monopoly, and most assume they are still being watched and that all letters are still being opened by authorities. As in China, it seems political reform goes only as far as the economy.
Slow Going For The Church
I talked with 19 evangelical pastors, including 7 who had spent an average of five years in prison, most without trial or sentence. The stories that emerged explain the initial quivering handshakes, which turned into long and tearful embraces.
“For the first year I was kept in a tiny, hot cell,” explained my close friend, Tin. “They wanted to break me by isolating me.” After seven years in prison, Tin has resumed the activities that got him arrested in the first place.
Other pastors and their relatives had similar stories. But gradually, pastors are finding ways to continue their ministries. The Dalat church, for example, is one of the three out of a hundred in Lam Dong province that is open for worship services. The pastor cannot preach there because he is still being “rehabilitated,” but he visits parishioners, writes evangelical material, and presides at church services. Two government-appointed “elders” allegedly carry frequent reports of church events to local authorities.
In Ho Chi Minh City and the lowlands, the Vietnamese church faces challenges of a different sort. Only 3 of 40 church buildings in Ho Chi Minh City have been closed by authorities. But an aging church leadership is losing the respect of some of the young and dynamic Christians. The president of the main evangelical body, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN), is 89 years old, blind, and ill. He is said to rely too heavily on “state enterprise” pastors who try to curry favor with local authorities.
Several young pastors have been pushed out of the ECVN and are giving leadership to a rapidly growing, though not very secret, house-church movement. The movement—largely charismatic—embraces about 2,000 people and 40 church leaders.
Despite such inner tensions, the church may play an important role in helping Vietnam rebuild. A spokesman for the Department of Religious Affairs told me his government made a mistake in its restrictive treatment of the church. “We found we were experts in fighting a war but that social welfare is something we are just learning about.” His request for help was echoed by the foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, who told another Western relief official, “You have complete freedom to help where you want and how you want in Vietnam.”
By Reg Reimer in Vietnam.
NORTH AMERICAN SCENE
Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell have expressed hope for the future of Christian mass-media ministry despite a guilty verdict in the recently concluded trial of former television preacher Jim Bakker. Last month a federal jury in Charlotte, North Carolina, convicted Bakker of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy to defraud donors to his PTL ministry and Heritage USA Christian theme park.
“While I am personally sorry for Mr. Bakker and his family and the thousands of people who have been hurt by the PTL saga,” said Falwell, “I am pleased that this dark chapter of religious history has concluded.”
Graham also expressed sympathy for the Bakkers’ “personal tragedy,” but said, “God’s work is not dependent upon one person; it is dependent upon the Holy Spirit.” Graham added, “I trust that we see the same amount of [media] energy put into covering the many positive things that are being done in the name of Christ and the power of the gospel to transform lives.”
Bakker plans to appeal the conviction.
Prolife activists say a Tennessee judge’s decision in the controversial embryo custody case will help their crusade against Roe v. Wade. Concluding that “human life begins at conception,” Judge W. Dale Young in September granted custody of seven embryo “children” to their mother.
Young further ruled that in the event any of the embryos is carried through pregnancy to live birth, he would at that time decide further questions of custody and child support.
National Right to Life President John Willke said the decision will have “enormous” implications for abortion litigation. Said Willke, “Once society recognizes the fact that human life begins at conception, killing human beings at will through abortion is clearly unacceptable.”
Porn Case Argued
The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of a Dallas law requiring licenses for sexually oriented businesses. Opponents of the law say it violates the First Amendment; the ordinance imposes several zoning and licensing requirements and calls for on-site inspections of pornographic businesses, including bookstores, video shops, and movie theaters.
John Weston, attorney for a group of businesses that oppose the law, called it “prior restraint” on his clients’ free-speech rights, adding that the ordinance constituted a “radical and wholesale reduction” of the Constitution.
However, Dallas city attorney Analeslie Muncy defended the ordinance, saying it was not designed to stop the sale of sexually explicit material, but to address the crime and declining property values associated with the businesses.
W. A. CRISWELL
Good News, Bad News
W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and chancellor at nearby Criswell College, recently announced that the Ruth Ray Hunt Philanthropic Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas has given $3 million to his school.
The money will be used to purchase the historic Gaston Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas, which will become the school’s new location next year. Criswell said this will enable the school, with nearly 400 students currently, to quadruple its efforts “in training a contingency of men and women who will literally circumnavigate the globe with the good news of forgiveness and life in Christ.”
The good news, however, came on the heels of various allegations of plagiarism by Criswell, one of the most widely known pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. Based on the allegations of Southern Baptist author Gordon James, several publications this summer ran reports documenting similarities—word-for-word at points—between Criswell’s popular book Why I Preach the Bible Is Literally True and the late R. A. Torrey’s 1907 book Difficulties and Alleged Errors and Contradictions in the Bible.
More recently, an anonymous Southern Baptist pastor supplied the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch with evidence that in another book, Criswell plagiarized the notes of a former seminary professor, the late William Hersey Davis. Religious News Service reported Criswell College spokesperson Paige Patterson as acknowledging that Criswell used Davis’s work liberally, (CT was unable to contact him.) Davis’s notes were published posthumously in 1962. William H. Davis, Jr., the late scholar’s son who holds the copyright on his father’s works, called Criswell’s use of them “intellectual dishonesty of the worst sort.”
PEOPLE AND EVENTS
Named: As senior pastor of Boston’s 180-year old, 2,300-member Park Street Church, David C. Fisher. He succeeds the recently retired Paul Toms.
Elected: As president of Latin America Mission, J. Paul Landrey, who begins in the new post on January 1. While working for World Vision International from 1980 to 1986, Landrey founded and directed World Vision’s U.S. ministry division. Since 1986, he has served as pastor of Grace Community Church in Tyler, Texas.
Dismissed: By the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a lawsuit attempting to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Roman Catholic Church because of its prolife activities. The three-judge panel in New York ruled that Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., had no legal standing to sue the Internal Revenue Service over the issue.
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