amanda rowe

Vietnam blog: Final questions
May 28, 2008, 5:52 pm
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21 September 2006

I was in Vietnam as a 26 year old amidst a culture that values age and worships ancestors; a middle class American evangelical amidst poor ethnic minority Christians; an American citizen amidst Vietnamese patriots; a product of individualism amidst a collectivist society; a religious freedom NGO representative amidst Vietnamese officials accused of violating religious freedom.

Ta Phin commune (similar to a county) in Northwest Vietnam was the place where these identities most obviously collided.  There, wealthy and individualistic American evangelicals encountered poor Hmong Christians whose faith was causing deep familial and societal rifts, in a region where Communist officials that had historically mistreated ethnic and religious minorities and considered Christianity a subversive American religion. I will conclude this travel blog by describing my visit to Ta Phin and raising a few of the questions that resulted.

We met with the president of the People’s Council of Ta Phin, a communal administrative body, in a second floor room of the local Party building. Inside the small ochre room, a gold bust Ho Chi Minh was positioned beneath an oval plaque of Marx’s and Lenin’s faces on a faded red drape against the back wall. Two windows with no glass overlooked miles of rice paddy terraces climbing up valley walls toward lumpy, bright-white hilltop clouds.

The president was a slight, soft-spoken man from the Dzao ethnic group, wearing the olive jumpsuit with red shoulder tassels that seemed to be government standard issue. He told us first about the peaceful coexistence of the “3 brothers” – the Hmong, Dzao, and Kinh (Vietnamese) ethnic groups that predominated the region. To prove his point, he gestured toward the terraced hills outside the window, explaining that if we were to visit these local farms, we would see all three ethnic groups working side by side to prepare for the fast-approaching harvest.

Vietnam, he explained, highly values social harmony. 

Then he began to explain the new religious phenomena in the region, evangelical Christianity. Radio gospel broadcasts out of the Philippines began to reach the area in the 1980s, and the first conversion to Christianity in Ta Phin occurred in 2003. Since most Christians worship privately in their homes, which are geographically remote, an accurate numerical count is difficult. Still, he estimated 240 total Christians (later, a local pastor would estimate a number many times higher). “Following a religion is a right,” he stated.

But that right is complicated. Christianity brings particular economic and social benefit to families who convert.  For example, in Hmong culture (which has been especially receptive to the gospel message), traditional beliefs dictate that families must make regular sacrifices to ensure protection against evil spirits. Such sacrifices create an economic hardship for families in one of the poorest regions of Vietnam. Christianity, conversely, states the Jesus himself was the ultimate blood sacrifice, rendering all others unnecessary. Additionally, the status of women in Hmong culture is quite low. Christianity elevates their status significantly by claiming they are equal to men and possess inherent dignity.

For these reasons, some believe economic and social incentives are driving the large number of conversions among the Hmong. Their unconverted family members and neighbors resent the laziness and spiritual irresponsibility by these new Christians, whose foolish behavior could provoke evil spirits and bring calamity to those around them. The government official explained that much time had been spent arbitrating family and village disputes arising over sacrifices and land use.

As he spoke, I was struck suddenly by how ridiculous my questions to him about church registrations must have sounded. In this remote agrarian society, families and neighbors are dividing, and traditional religious and agricultural practices are rapidly changing. Issuing official pieces of paper to house churches seemed peripheral when the entire social fabric was so quickly unraveling. Still, the official smiled thinly and answered my questions, talking about a new pilot program to register local churches and reiterating the right of people to practice their faith.

After this government meeting, we drove a few kilometers up a steep mountain road to meet one young convert, Chang a Cang, a Hmong pastor who was just 20 years old. He, like most Hmong, was small in stature, the top of his head level with my chin (I am 5’3″). Cang’s home was a tiny shack of mud, wood, and corrugated metal surrounded by steep hills of terraced rice paddies and intersecting streams. As an urban apartment dweller, I was struck by the remoteness of this pastor and his extended family, living among the hills of Northwest Vietnam with no visible neighbors.

In the rear of Cang’s home, about 10 total women, children, and infants intently watched our conversation, half-hidden in the dusty dark shadows cast by the sloping metal roof. They wore traditional dress – black linen layers made iridescent (and waterproof) by vigorous rubbing with beeswax, punctuated by bright red and purple embroidery and by tiny bells and coins. By contrast, most Hmong men I had seen, including Cang, wore Western dress.

Communication was difficult because Cang spoke limited Vietnamese, and what little he spoke was in what our translator called “the Hmong manner of speaking.” What’s more, our conversation was interspersed with Christian jargon – baptism, Holy Spirit, blood of Christ, communion, deliverance – with which our translator was unfamiliar. So we fumbled through about an hour of conversation about beliefs (he felt that Matthew 7:7 was the heart of the gospel); reason for conversion (“I used to be plagued by evil spirits, but then I heard about Jesus”); church registration (Cang had submitted an application and was waiting for response); and the  everyday struggles of an uneducated, remote, poor Hmong pastor.

(Much of this meeting has been better documented elsewhere by others with whom I traveled, and I’d encourage you to read the accounts of Mark Galli, Kevin Colon, and Bob Roberts.)

Toward the end of our visit, one pastor asked Cang what he needed. Cang mentioned Bibles and a computer. On the spot, the pastors decided to drive Cang into town and buy him a computer. So Cang rode with us for an hour to Lao Cai Town, where the pastors pooled their money to purchase a computer and printer before sending him back home in a taxi, instantly bringing decades of technological advance to his small mud shack in the valley.

As Cang was riding with his new computer in the back of a taxi, I was laying on the bed of my room in the Communist Party Headquarters in Lao Cai, picking absently at the frayed chenille blanket as my mind ran through countless questions.

Is it better to act out of spontaneous generosity, even if that generosity may later prove to have been ill-planned, unsustainable, or even detrimental to the recipient? Or to not act until we are certain that our generosity will contribute to something well-planned, long-term, and locally sustainable?

Spontaneous acts sometimes seem more “pure” but can also mask tainted motives: soothing our guilt for being so wealthy and comfortable; feeling important and necessary as the bearers of expensive gifts; reporting impressive numbers of “lives changed”; maintaining a healthy distance from the complex difficulties of the recipient’s daily life, opting instead for a fast fix; and so on.

Similarly, well-planned acts sometimes seem more “wise” but can hide equally bad motives:  inactivity and laziness; excessive desire to control outcomes;  avoidance of dirtying one’s hands with less-than-perfect situations and people; captivation with one’s own intelligence, cleverness, and particular theological or philosophical bent; etc.

Which type of act (with all its beautiful and ugly motives) more pleases God? Glorifies God? Disappoints God? Resembles God – who sometimes lavishes generosity on undeserving people, and other times withholds material comforts for purposes mysterious and sovereign?

Underlying these questions, and the many more that I have left unwritten, is a basic idea: engaging the world as a 26 year old American Christian is messy business, fraught with emotion, confusion, moral ambiguities, mistakes, stereotypes, cultural blunders, deception, and some very unlovely people.

But this is the world that Jesus chose to embrace, taking on all its ugliness and frailty and destructiveness in his own body before dying on its behalf.

So what choice do I have?