My Close Friends
by Đinh Thị Vinh
MCC Vietnam Project Officer, 1997-2009
My years of working with MCC have left me with many memories of the love and warmth of MCC friends, colleagues, partners, and the people of my country.
When I first came to MCC in early 1997, I had little understanding of development work. The MCC Country Representatives, Bruce and Betsy McCrae, sent me to a Community Development training course. After I returned from training, Betsy asked me: do you agree to work for MCC? I was happy and surprised that they trained me before I had served. I remember Betsy’s warm and friendly smile and how she always encouraged people to work with her. At MCC, I first had to learn the lessons of community development to have the opportunity to discover more about the beauty of my country and local people.
This is a story I will tell another day. Now, I want to talk about my MCC friends who have accompanied us during the difficult years of building our country.
In late 1997, Ken and Fran Friesen came to Việt Nam to be the new Country Representatives. They were young and had two small children. I often asked myself, what drove them away from their families, to a poor and remote country in order to serve? In 1998, a heavy storm caused severe damage to five mountainous communes in Lập Thạch District, Vĩnh Phúc Province. The provincial leaders of Vĩnh Phúc asked MCC for help. Ken decided to travel to the affected areas to deliver MCC’s gifts to the people in person. It was a long journey through heavy rain on the day we went, and we traveled on small mud paths heading to the commune hall to meet the local people there. Ken presented them with gifts, and said the following: we’ve come here to share in the difficulties of people after disasters and to give gifts from Mennonite people in the hope that everyone in the world will live better lives. For many of the villagers, Ken was the first foreigner they had ever met, and they were very touched he came to visit them even in the rain. Later, when MCC opened a project in Lập Thạch District, officials and people there still remembered that meaningful sharing.
Ken and Fran enjoyed visiting the project areas with the program officers. Once, when meeting with local people in a project area, Ken started talking about the project and asked people what they needed. Everyone was excited to tell him about what they needed, and there were so many things. On the way back to Hà Nội, I told Ken that if a foreigner goes to a rural area and asks what people need they could easily spend the whole day talking about that. I told him that it would nice if he asked them about village life and about their future intentions and then ask about the project specifically; this would be more fun and effective since we were focusing on development not emergency relief. He agreed, and we both laughed happily. We worked together as close colleagues, openly discussing different views of development, project management, and life.
When Ken’s family left Việt Nam, Ken brought an old cyclo and palm hat and shipped them home to California. He still occasionally uses this vehicle to carry passengers around at events to raise funds for MCC. Ken still brings students to Việt Nam to visit and study, and we meet again as old friends.
In 2003, Lowell and Ruth Jantzi came to us like a brother and sister. Once, Ruth and I visited the kindergarten of Hiền Quan Commune, Tam Nông District, Phú Thọ Province. She entered each classroom, greeted each teacher, and enjoyed watching the children at play. The teachers showed us the sewing machines they used to sew clothes for poor students and the learning tools and toys the teachers had made from discarded items, such as yogurt boxes, wood scraps, and fabric scraps. Ruth appreciated the love and effort that the teachers had for the children.
The following summer, when returning to Việt Nam from a vacation in the U.S., the Jantzi’s brought a suitcase full of cloth. Ruth gave it as a gift to the preschool teachers so they could make clothes for their pupils. The commune officials and teachers were very touched when they received this special gift. They remarked about how the cloth had had to journey a long way to reach their remote area. This gift was a big support and greatly encouraged the teachers and parents to raise their children in an upstanding way. The new school year for that preschool started with such a special gift.
Every time when we visited a project area, Lowell and Ruth were asking us everything about the lives of the people there. When we met with local people they listened to their stories, and on the way back to Hà Nội they discussed with us how we could help the people more. They remembered each location where MCC worked and always remembered every MCC partner and cared about them. In some places, they called Lowell “Uncle Mọ,” referring to him as an older family member. I understand why MCC’s partners and the local people love Lowell and Ruth so much. And we Vietnamese staff called Lowell and Ruth our brother and sister. After each trip away from home, the next day we were always eager to return to the office to tell each other the stories we had heard in the project areas and to share the life stories of the families we had met. We listened, encouraged, and supported one another to contribute to the development of disadvantaged communities in our country.
I often think back to the years I worked with MCC and remember the stories of other friends, such as Allan and Louise Epps, Interim Representatives in 2002, the many volunteers I've worked with, and the SALT program participants.
Many of my friends occasionally have the chance to return to visit Việt Nam. Together, we walk along the streets and enjoy our favorite foods, and we laugh together, so excited and happy.