Hospitality Amidst Ashes

by  Patricia Hostetter Martin,

MCC Vietnam, Quang Ngai, 1966-1969, 1973-1975,
MCC East Asia Director overseeing Vietnam, 1984-1993

We were instantly awake as the 105-millimeter cannons at the airport started their nightly harassment. We listened to the whine of each shell as it arced its deadly trajectory through the night. The earth rumbled as each shell exploded on impact. They sounded uncommonly close — perhaps landing in Nghĩa Hành. We thought of friends in the refugee camps there. Whose life would be snuffed out tonight? Whose home would be destroyed?


In the morning, Earl and I got on the Lambretta scooter and headed south from the MCC house in the provincial center, asking people as we went where the artillery shells had hit. About ten kilometers out of town we were directed west across the rice paddies and toward a large grove of tall bamboo. We turned onto a dirt path between hedges of bright pink bougainvillea and banana trees, greeting villagers on their way to the market or to rice fields. They pointed to an opening in the thick green foliage.


Parking the scooter there, we entered a clearing where an older couple in their black peasant pajamas were stooped over, picking up pieces of bamboo and tin roofing. What remained of their home and belongings were scattered in splintered fragments around their scorched courtyard.


Seeing us enter, they quickly stood up and came toward us with welcoming smiles. They seemed to know who we were. They had seen us drive in and out of the refugee camp not far away, they said.


Their story of the previous night’s events came tumbling out, not in self-pity but with a dignity and defiance that we found common among the people of Quảng Ngãi.
It was not the first time their house had been destroyed — in fact, it was the fifth time. When they heard the first artillery shell explode nearby, they quickly took refuge in their bunker, a pit dug in the earth beneath their bed. But one of the shells scored a direct hit on their small house. They graciously did not mention that our country had sent these shells. Rather, they drew us in with open hospitality. 


As the man related their story, I noticed the woman had moved away and was bent over, collecting splinters of bamboo and broken tree branches. She put them in a pile as if to start a fire, then stood up and looked at me apologetically.


“I was going to boil tea for you, but I just realized I have no teapot.” She moved across the courtyard and picked up the mangled remains of her teakettle.


“Forgive me. Please come again when we have rebuilt our house.”

Reprinted from Christian Living, Volume 19, Number 3, March 1972. Used with permission of MennoMedia, Harrisonburg, VA.

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