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Muddling Forward

by Delbert L. Wiens, 

MCC Vietnam Country Representative, 1954-1957

After graduating from college in 1953, I asked my local California draft board to agree with General Hershey, who was the commanding officer of the National Draft Board, and allow me to be “seconded” to MCC as a “conscientious objector” instead of joining the U.S. Army, Navy, or Air Force. After orientation in Akron, Pennsylvania, I became a very junior assistant in the office that looked after I-Ws—the military classification I and many other Mennonite boys received. I accompanied Orie O. Miller and William Snyder—the MCC “chiefs”—and the two persons above me in MCC’s I-W office to a conference with Church of the Brethren and Quaker leaders in General Hershey’s office. I learned that he regarded this “concession” to religious beliefs to be a wonderful affirmation of America’s democratic virtue. Beyond that, I-Ws were the only inductees he continued to lead, and he wanted to make sure that  we contributed both to “the national interest” and to our own maturity and mission. 

During my year in Akron, I also began to learn that the Mennonites who came to America decades before its War of Independence and whom we—the Mennonite Brethren— called the “Old” Mennonites, had received a different “European” experience than had those of us whose elders had lived a century or two in Eastern Europe before coming to a mid-Western frontier a decade after America’s Civil War. For example, we needed to learn a lot from “Old” Mennonite theologians and business leaders. I also began to suspect that we late-comers were less likely to think of ourselves as the “quiet in the land” and were less wary of what modern technology and education might do to us. 

In July 1954, Orie O. Miller met me on the sidewalk at the Akron headquarters and announced, “Delbert, God wants you to go to Việt Nam.” I had been hoping that God wanted me in Germany, and I wished devoutly that it had been God who had bumped into me on the sidewalk, because, as I muttered to myself, “with God it might be possible to argue.” Indeed, I was awed by the legend of Orie O. Miller.  

We Mennonite Brethren (MC) had centered our discipleship around evangelism, but a conference with the head of the Christian Missionary Alliance Mission Board in New York City that had a near monopoly of the evangelical Protestant presence in Việt Nam left me marveling at the logic of heavenly bookkeeping to which that emphasis could lead. His slow and monotonous rhetoric during the hasty meeting that Miller and Snyder had arranged in New York did not help. “We—of—the—Christian—Missionary—Alliance—have—not—engaged—in—institutional—work—since—we—have—discovered—that—the—cost—per—soul—of—institutional—evangelism—is—greater—than—the—cost—per—soul—of—direct—evangelism." He must have been very uncomfortable. North Vietnamese members of their churches were also fleeing south after the division of the country in June, and he had to welcome our willingness to do the “institutional work” that conflicted with their policies. 

With a few quiet words to important people, Miller could move even Washington bureaucracy. I barely had time to figure out the location and importance of Việt Nam before a passport and visa arrived and I was on a plane going west, and then farther west after a five-day stop to visit my family in Reedley, California. In August 1954 I was far too young—barely twenty-three—to organize an appropriate niche for MCC’s assistance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the southern part of a country that had experienced a long war of liberation from French control and which had been divided into a “communist” north and a “democratic” south scarcely two months prior to my arrival.

French bureaucrats were handing over governance to their Vietnamese staff, and arriving American bureaucrats were trying to cloak their growing superintendence of a supposed “democracy” presided over by a member of an important mandarin Vietnamese family from Central Việt Nam whom J. Foster Dulles had plucked from a New Jersey monastery a little more than two months before I arrived. I soon learned that only a small minority of the refugees had any clear idea why their lives were being torn apart. Most were village peasants whose parish priests had heeded the order of higher-ups to bring their flock to a northern port to be shipped south. 

They were pawns of the international and religious politics of the Cold War. While marveling how the sausage of international politics was packaged, I discovered that the Vietnamese and American officials from whom we needed permission, guidance, and support to offer the proverbial “cup of cold water in the name of Christ” had “enlisted” us to symbolize the humanitarian face of what was assumed to be the free world in a huge propaganda campaign to counter “communism.” We in MCC, despite our best efforts, also become Cold War “pawns."

Since most northern peasants moved south with intact village structures, they could relatively quickly be fitted onto productive land in the south. It made sense from MCC’s perspective to focus on working with individuals, Christian or not, who were afraid of the nationalists liberating Việt Nam from Western colonialism, as well as those people who were “given” the right to organize the governance of North Việt Nam in June 1954 after having soundly defeated the French at Điện Biên Phủ. Ho Chi Minh and many other nationalists had been influenced more by the economics and politics of Karl Marx than by the capitalists who exploited “colonies,” but they also successfully avoided recolonization by either China or Russia. In any case, we were responding to genuine human need, and it was probably better to be naïve than sophisticated about all the tangled motives coming into play. 

I do not intend to report what a hastily assembled handful of MCC volunteers did during the next three years. I focus now on the physical, moral, and spiritual shocks I stumbled into. I had not yet heard of “culture shock” and “worldview shifts,” and I almost did not survive the first chaotic months. The senior missionary couple with whom I first lived was their field treasurer, and he was still shaken by his arrest, a month or two before I arrived, when he was “caught” exchanging the mission’s funds on the black market. 

When I expressed my judgmental shock at the use of the black market to J. Lawrence Burkholder, he smiled and asked me how I thought the Mennonite-Brethren Mission Board had financed our workers in China. MCC had sent him to China after World War II, and Church World Service (CWS) had sent him to Saigon to advise them whether to open an office in Việt Nam. Fortunately, my missionary host invited him to stay with me in their villa. I accompanied him around South Việt Nam and received the orientation to “relief work” that I had not gotten because of my hasty departure. I soon learned that legal money markets often expressed a different kind of immorality, and that my host in Việt Nam had only continued to transfer funds in a way that, until then, had been normal and acceptable. 

I also endured the shock of dangers to my life and comfort. The first night I was in Việt Nam a gun battle erupted around the house, and the next morning my hosts showed me the splintered woodwork, with embedded shells, inside the house, as well as the casings that littered the yard. I knew that my presence added to their concerns, and I was not surprised that I was given an ultimatum by my hosts to find my own lodging less than two months after I arrived. Unfortunately, I could find no place to live. I enlisted Americans working in the Embassy, French agents, Vietnamese friends, and missionaries I knew to help me find a place. Eventually a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) missionary finally suggested a Chinese hotel in the twin city of Chợ Lớn. When I visited, I wandered down its hall trying to figure out the strange reception I got until I realized that I had been sent to what was also a brothel. Fortunately, the missionaries with whom I was living were appalled and allowed me to remain with them until someone relayed a tip that an old French alcoholic was desperate enough to rent out a room in his small house. 

About eight months after I arrived, the South Việt Namese Army attacked and defeated the Saigon police, whose “warlord” general had created a religion, a government, and a substantial army out of his band of river bandits. So long as they fought nationalist and communist rebels, the French and the Americans had been his willing accomplices. Several years earlier this general and high priest had bought the police, customs, and Saigon post office “concessions” from the emperor, who was enjoying life on the French Riviera. When this violence was about to break out, I decided to cross the city to warn the family of the translator for the CWS director. I was caught between this “sectarian army” and the new “official” army, and crouched behind a pile of cement blocks while bullets whistled overhead. Before this, several smaller boats offloading a large shipment of food for an MCC Christmas distribution “disappeared,” and we assumed the customs agents had taken their “cut.”

I quickly overcame a taboo common to “dry” Oklahoma, where I was raised, and to MCC volunteers. It seemed entirely presumptuous for me to make a righteous scene by requesting a soft drink when a champagne toast was called for by the ethos of international diplomacy, or merely to pretend to take a sip when the President of South Việt Nam was being toasted. When seated directly across from the President of the country and next to the Italian ambassador’s wife at a dinner at his residence, I was worried about making a serious faux pas.

Though I could fudge on minor issues when there were good reasons, I was a stickler on major ones. I was so sure that I should avoid “corruption” that I was mostly successful at avoiding even the thought that long-awaited responses might have been expedited with a little cash. But when is “bribery” wrong? I had to do a lot of rationalizing while keeping formally pure. I learned to send my Vietnamese assistant to secure important permissions and assistance when I had failed. Since I did not give him extra funds to slip “under the table,” I am profoundly grateful for the competence and wisdom of Nguyễn Văn Ninh, a young Christian refugee who helped guide MCC efforts for almost twenty years.

One example of a genuine crisis emerged when I became the point of contact for the Geneva office of the World Council of Churches, and they responded to the plea of a Swiss Brethren missionary to alleviate starvation in an outlying section of southern Laos. I was sent a significant amount of money to buy rice for them. 

My meetings with the local governor in that region of Laos, to negotiate the purchase of low cost rice available in government warehouses, moved from cordiality to threats when I made it clear that I could not just give him the money and let him oversee the distribution. When I finally suggested that it would be unfortunate to have to pay a higher price for black market Thai rice piled high on the bank of the Mekong River—sitting halfway between visible police and custom posts—he threatened to send his army and police to stop me if I persisted. 
I was both exhilarated and scared, but that is what we did—using a truck so far as it could manage the bad roads, shuttling the one hundred kilo bags of rice to the banks of a river in Jeeps, and loading them into a fleet of dugout canoes loaded so low that I amused myself pretending that I needed to breathe evenly in both nostrils lest we tip into the river. 


The Swiss Brethren missionary in Savannakhet later mentioned that such officials as the one who threatened me received no salary—he may even have had to pay handsomely for the privilege, or the necessity, of skimming off enough to secure a living to “serve his country”—and himself. Of course, I had to rationalize the probability that I may have “inadvertently” made possible his percentage on the black-market rice I bought. Luckily, the governor did not arrest me.

I was learning that many cultures believe that the logic of relationships undergirds a morality of assistance to those to whom there are special ties, and that this supersedes the logic of abstract justice that governs our Western condemnation of the way other people “misuse” our aid. And so, I was amused at the irony that the first outright “bribe” I ever paid was the equivalent of five dollars to get my scooter across fifty feet of bare land between the freighter on which I traveled to Sri Lanka, on my journey home to the U.S. in 1957, and into the shed in which its presence would miraculously become legal. After all, it would have been immoral to trouble the ship captain with an unwanted scooter on his return journey.

Besides the anxieties involved in mere survival and in helping refugees were the greater anxieties of responsibility for others. My greatest sin in this confession is to be unable to do justice to the wonderful MCC workers who did most of the work and who built a jungle hospital, in Buon Ma Thuot, in the face of huge obstacles. I frequently had to cope with my resentment at MCC’s willingness to send people when they did not really have the resources needed to sustain our morale and ministry. 

Later during my time in Việt Nam I had several occasions to hone a brief sermon urging the unity of the body of Christ, based on John 17. It hurt that some leading missionaries were trying to undermine us MCC workers by spreading rumors that American Mennonites were liberal heretics at the same time that I was urging their converts to remain faithful to their church. I also had to face the mysteries of Christian pluralism. For political reasons, I attended the American Congregation led by a missionary whose sermons and style seemed to me to be symbolized by the strawberry cool-aid sipped at communion. To receive the spiritual nourishment I desperately needed and wasn’t getting at the American church, I attended the small French Reformed congregation in Saigon served by Pastor DeLuze who, with his wife, turned out to be Huguenots more spiritual and more lovingly sacrificial than I. They were saints, and they soon “adopted” me. 

Another MCC volunteer and myself, along with Pastor De Luze, once drove a truckload of MCC canned beef to Laos to add to the rice I had purchased. Pastor De Luze also happened to be a French army officer—he was the French Reformed chaplain to the Foreign Legion and to its regular Army Protestants—and he arranged for a convoy of French army vehicles to include our truck. They had also turned most of the “servant’s quarters” of the parsonage into an orphanage for abandoned “mixed blood” orphans. He also arranged a donation of one or two large barracks on one of their bases—we planned to disassemble them to get the lumber we needed to build a jungle hospital near Ban Me Thuot. He was more embarrassed than I was when I went with him to inspect this gift, and we discovered that the camp’s prostitutes had to be removed from the barracks before we could dismantle them. 

Somehow, I—a Corn, Oklahoma, and Reedley, California, Mennonite Brethren—had become a representative of North American Mennonites, a national director of CWS and its constituency of main-line denominations, and a some-time, informal agent for the World Council of Churches. When it was insisted that I should join the elderly French lady schoolteacher, a rubber plantation manager, and a French army colonel on the governing board of the Saigon French Reformed Church, my resistance was overridden with a cheerful, “Oh, eet does not matter; I run zee church like a fascist anyway." Like the song in the musical Oklahoma, I “had gone about as fur as I could go." 

Near the end of my three years, a Vietnamese layman came to thank me for having honored them by eating what they ate. I had tried to avoid tainted water and uncooked food when I could, but the cost of trying to live with a “missionary stomach” had been frequent bouts of intestinal distress and a nearly five-foot tapeworm. Though one of the leading pastors I knew wept while recounting how the efforts of MCC volunteers had deepened their understanding of the Gospel, I knew that I was physically and spiritually empty. 

I had decided that “muddling” was inevitable in such a desperate time and place, and I determined that I would “muddle forward” instead of in circles. I knew that our efforts were being applauded; I also knew, with St. Paul, that it was possible to save others while becoming a “castaway.” During my last months I would sometimes stop at the USIS Library to read a month’s worth of comic strips in the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune to raise my spirits enough that I could face going to the office. 

I was grateful that I was “finishing the row,” and I knew that I could not stay. I also knew that I could not yet face returning home. I had seen too much. What if churches asked me to give glowing reports on what had been done “in the name of Christ?” My solution was to take seven months to get home, including a trip across India to the MB mission in the south of that country.

While passing the Statue of Liberty and finally returning to the U.S., I rejoiced that the tears in my eyes reaffirmed that I was thankful to be an American—despite the various terrors taking place in Việt Nam, I was still home. I visited Yale Divinity School and decided that it felt enough like a monastery that my healing could progress there. After graduating, I returned to Reedley to await a “call." Two or three weeks before fall classes began, a Corn Bible Academy board member called to ask whether, for one year, I could fill their sudden need for a part time English teacher. I could “pad out” their meager salary by assisting a one-year “interim” pastor of the Corn MB church whom I had met in India and whose brother was one of our MCC volunteers in Việt Nam. 

During that year, the retired farmers who were that church’s governing board decided to revise their constitution and by-laws, and I became their “recording secretary." Almost every paragraph of their old documents elicited memories of the historical context when they had been written. Since I had become convinced that the spiritual and rural disciplines I had learned in Corn had helped me to respect and to understand the Việt Namese rural villages and to survive culture shock, I have realized that I had been “enrolled” in a revelatory “graduate course” every cultural historian should experience. 

Many years later, after attending the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Kolkata, India, my wife and I attended the fiftieth anniversary celebration, in Hà Nội, of the arrival in Việt Nam of MCC and CWS—I had landed in Ho Chi Minh City on 17 August 1954, and now we celebrated in 2004. Around three hundred celebrants listened to the Vice-President of Việt Nam, Madame Trương Mỹ Hoa, who delivered a major speech after a wonderful dinner. I was actually quite glad that I didn’t need to say anything at the event, though I may have been the only one present who had arrived almost exactly fifty years earlier. 

Before 1975 the Canadian MCC office had been able to send educational and other materials to North Việt Nam, which had not been possible to do from the Akron, Pennsylvania, office. I had also learned by then that MCC and CWS had been the first NGOs the united Vietnamese had invited to return. 

That our resources remained limited was obvious—but it didn’t matter whether I, or the handful of others who arrived after me, had been “adequate.” What thrilled me was the fact that by the time MCC and CWS were asked to leave the country in 1976 and 1975 respectively it had become obvious that our personal and organizational motivations sufficiently overlapped with the motives of those transforming the policies and economies of this beautiful and resourceful nation. We had not been wholly co-opted by cold war passions and ideological errors—and I rejoiced.

Much of this reflection comes from ‘My In and Out,’ a biographical reflection by Wiens most recently published by Wipf & Stock in A Dangerous Mind: The Ideas and Influence of Delbert L. Wiens in 2015. Used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers,

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