Rachel Kerr James was the first medical professional to arrive on the scene of the US embassy bombing in Saigon in March 1965. She saw the smoke, mangled metal, and scores of people wounded by the blast that ripped a hole in the side of the five-story concrete building. She knew immediately what she had to do.
“I am going to stay here as long as necessary,” she said to her husband, Sam. “It could be a long time.”
James spent three days tending to the wounded at the embassy—and 13 years caring for the people of Vietnam during the war. A Southern Baptist missionary nurse, she volunteered with the Red Cross, set up medical clinics in the villages around Saigon, and launched a mobile clinic, all while raising four children and helping her husband plant churches and start a seminary.
James died in Virginia in April. She was 88.
“I felt God called me to be a foreign missionary,” James said. “My whole life has been centered around this call.”
James was born October 17, 1934, in Durham, North Carolina. Her father, Theodore Kerr, worked at a local hospital. Her mother, Ethel Peed Kerr, was a homemaker who had once dreamed of being a missionary and passed her passion for mission work on to her daughter.
James accepted Jesus as her personal savior at 14. Shortly afterward, she started to feel a call to nursing and missions that was, as she later described it, “increasingly definite.” As she started to date, however, that call was challenged. Few if any of the young men she knew were committed to missions. Fewer still liked the idea of getting married to a woman who wanted to be a missionary.
One day, praying in church before dawn, she was convicted that following Christ had to come before anything else—even getting married and having a family. She stretched herself out on the altar as the sun rose through and gave her life to God.
“Lord, I want you to know I am completely willing and ready to go alone,” she said. “But, Lord, if you send me somebody, and we can go together, that will be okay too.”
Two years later, as a nursing student at Duke University, she was invited to dinner at the home of a woman from her church. The woman also invited her nephew, a Navy veteran who had a born-again experience while serving in Korea. Sam James was immediately smitten with this woman who was so committed to the Great Commission. He drove her back to her dormitory, and the two sat in the parking lot until midnight, when all the nursing students had to be in for curfew.
Before they parted, they prayed that God would guide them on their respective paths to serve him—each hoping, but not saying aloud, that those paths might merge.
Sam and Rachel James were married on August 8, 1957.
As they prepared for mission work, Sam took a job as a pastor of a Baptist congregation in rural North Carolina. James had her first child there, and then her second.
The growing family struggled in those first few years of ministry. Political tensions divided the church, and some people started leaving when they heard Sam was planning to allow Black people to attend. He had not thought about trying to integrate the congregation, Sam later wrote in a memoir, but he was deeply unsettled by the racial views in the church. He demanded the church vote on whether to keep him.
“God loves all mankind no matter where in the world they live, what skin color they have, what economic strata they belong to, or what social standing they have,” he preached. “Above all, God loves every single one of us.”
The congregation agreed to keep their young pastor and allow Black people to sit in one section of the sanctuary if they came. (None did.)
In 1961, the Jameses were accepted as candidates by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Rachel James attended orientation while three months pregnant with her third child.
They left by boat from San Francisco in March 1961, with a three-year-old, an 18-month-old, and a newborn in tow.
When they landed in Hong Kong, however, the Jameses were informed that their visa applications had been rejected. The South Vietnamese government, run by Catholics, was concerned about American Protestants undercutting support for the regime. They appealed and waited. They waited all spring, all summer, and into the fall.
Yet when it seemed like they would never get approval, Rachel James became convinced the authorities were going to change their minds. Baptist churches in the United States had a calendar telling them when to pray for missionaries, and they were scheduled to pray for her on her birthday, October 17. She was certain it would make a difference.
On October 17, the Jameses were notified their visas had been approved. They became the sixth Baptist missionary family to go to Vietnam.
The Jameses spent two years in intensive classes learning Vietnamese, taking turns studying and watching the children. As they learned the language and the culture, they began to love the people.
It wasn’t always easy, though. There were small but embarrassing faux pas, like the time Sam offended a guest by eating first or the time he couldn’t think of the vocabulary for “plucked” and asked a woman in the market for a chicken without clothes. She called everyone over to laugh at him.
There were more serious challenges too. The American government started sending combat troops into the country, and fighting increased. The South Vietnamese government, worried about dissidents, outlawed all meetings of more than three people, making all of the Jameses’ Bible studies illegal. Rachel wasn’t legally allowed to start a clinic, because all the Vietnamese doctors had been drafted into the military and she needed a doctor to supervise.
In 1967, as they began their second term in Vietnam, however, an American army doctor showed up at the church they had planted in a suburb of Saigon. S. Leo Record Jr., a Wesleyan from North Carolina, had received orders to provide medical care to the South Vietnamese. But he didn’t have anyone to translate. He heard the Baptist missionaries spoke Vietnamese and was shocked to find that one of them was a trained nurse who wanted to start a clinic.
James and Record teamed up to provide medical care. They opened weekly clinics in the villages around Saigon, each serving 100 to 200 people. Around the same time, James had her fourth child.
In 1973, when President Richard Nixon started withdrawing troops, most of the medical personnel in Saigon were sent home. The army sold James all the medical equipment she wanted, though, and she teamed up with a Catholic doctor and established a mobile clinic, driving to a different place each day to continue the work.
James insisted on continuing, even when the work was threatened by Northern Vietnamese soldiers.
“Sam,” she told her husband, “I just can’t give up the ministry God has placed in my care. The need is just too great. … I simply will not, cannot quit.”
James continued for another two years, until the South Vietnamese government fell and the family had to be evacuated.
Back in the US, James supported her husband as he oversaw the construction and development of a missionary training center in Richmond, Virginia, known today as the International Learning Center. Sam went on to serve as East Asia area director for the International Missions Board and then vice president for creative leadership development.
“A missionary wife goes through cycles of life and ministering,” she said. “There are times when she is free to do what she wants to do. Then she may enter a cycle where she is busy almost full-time carrying out the responsibilities that come naturally to a wife and mother. … All of this is the Lord’s work and in his will and timing.”
In 2002, the Jameses were allowed to return to Vietnam to see the church they helped start in Saigon with $50,000 taken up in Lottie Moon offerings in Southern Baptist churches. The church survived the Communist rule under Vietnamese leadership and continues to this day. The couple made regular trips back to Vietnam to teach until James’s health no longer allowed her to travel.
James is predeceased by her third child, Philip. She is survived by her husband and children, Deborah Winans, Stephen James, and Michael James. A memorial service will be held at First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, on May 13.