by Luke Martin,
Eastern Mennonite Missions, Saigon, 1962-1975
My personal involvement with MCC began in 1954 when I went to Germany as part of the MCC PAX program to build housing for refugees. I had been living on a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, farm with an agricultural deferment from the local draft board. When a young neighbor, a bit older than I, was drafted and sent to Korea, I gave up my deferment and was then ordered as a conscientious objector to find work contributing to “national health, safety, or interest” in lieu of military service.
The eighteen months I spent building housing for refugees in Backnang, Germany—near Stuttgart—and the eight months following that, which I spent working in agricultural programs in Greece, were life changing. I returned home with a sense that I would continue some form of international Christian ministry. After getting married and completing college education, Mary and I were in conversation with MCC about another overseas assignment. Wanting to do something more than just a routine three-year MCC term, Mary and I chose instead to join Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) in Việt Nam for a long-term assignment, beginning in September 1962.
The Việt Nam Mennonite Mission personnel related closely with the MCC team. Rudy and Elda Lichti represented MCC in Sài Gòn. We learned to know the other MCC personnel who worked in the Tin Lành Clinic and Hospital in Nha Trang when they came to Sài Gòn or when we took short vacations to Nha Trang. Daniel Gerber, the last MCC assignee to Buôn Ma Thuột, went missing in May 1962.
Paul and Doris Longacre came to Sài Gòn in 1964 as MCC representatives. As the military conflict intensified throughout the following year, Everett Metzler—also on the EMM team—and I were invited to assist MCC with specific projects. Everett organized and coordinated the Vietnamese language program, and I scouted the area to rent living quarters and office space for the enlarging international team which became Việt Nam Christian Service (VNCS) in 1966. Among the properties I found was the Êm Đềm, meaning ‘tranquility,’ property on Lê Quang Định Street in Gia Định—now Bình Thạnh Ward, HCM City; this became the home and guest house for VNCS personnel.
I also assisted in other occasional assignments for MCC and VNCS. In 1966, I traveled to Đà Nẵng and to Côn Sơn Island to determine whether VNCS might establish service programs there. No programs were developed in Đà Nẵng because the government could easily provide resources to internal refugees there and the large military bases offered many good paying jobs. VNCS was able to place a medical doctor to Côn Sơn prison island for several months.
Việt Nam Mennonite Mission established a community center in Gia Định in 1964. MCC’s Family Child Assistance sponsorship program enabled youth to get vocational training in sewing, embroidery, mechanics, electrical work, and other trades at the center. With the opening of the Rạng Đông elementary school, MCC’s Educational Assistance Program supported hundreds of students. We worked closely with VNCS social workers and facilitated correspondence with the sponsors. When a large area adjacent to the community center was destroyed by fighting in 1968, VNCS provided framing and roofing materials to help rebuild 130 houses. James Metzler coordinated much of this assistance at first, and I later continued it.
Reflecting on this MCC relationship from fifty years ago I am grateful for the opportunity we had to relate with people who had fled their homes in the countryside and support them as they struggled to survive with limited housing, food, medical care, and educational opportunities.
Several years after MCC united with Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief in 1966 to form VNCS, MCC again became independent in 1973. MCC’s North American leaders preferred to work in a more-targeted way with a much smaller program. Most MCC international staff enjoyed working with the broader ecumenical international staff, but were also excited to work together in a smaller team and explore new program opportunities. Max Ediger reluctantly became the Việt Nam representative while preferring to be involved in program activities. In September 1973, I became the MCC Việt Nam representative while continuing to participate in some Việt Nam Mennonite Mission responsibilities.
MCC personnel in this era wanted their program activities to somehow contribute to ending the fratricidal war. This was affirmed at a staff retreat held with MCC board member Robert Kreider. We had a small program giving assistance to Vietnamese political prisoners. We partnered with students in organizing work camps to build camaraderie and restore damaged infrastructure. We began to study the problem of unexploded ordnance. MCCs commitment to work closely with the Tin Lành Church was tested: MCC medical personnel worked with some local staff who continued to support a military opposition to the insurgency. With the difficulty in recruiting new medical doctors from North America and the successful recruiting of a Vietnamese doctor to work at the Nha Trang Clinic, it seemed imperative for the Tin Lành Church to assume full control of the medical programs. MCCs child sponsorship programs supporting the Gia Định Mennonite community center continued.
The March 1975 capture of Buôn Ma Thuột by the insurgent forces began the rout which soon led to the surrender of the Sài Gòn government’s forces. MCCs Pleiku personnel, in Sài Gòn for a retreat when their area changed hands, were unable to return to their posts. Soon it became necessary for the team members in Quảng Ngãi and Nha Trang to decide what to do. Thanks to a brief informal conversation with area director Robert Miller when he had visited Việt Nam a few weeks earlier, I was able to affirm the interest of Quảng Ngãi personnel to remain in place. Earl and Pat Hostetter Martin agonized about what to do; Pat left with the children, and Earl decided to stay. Yoshihiro (Hiro) Ichakawa then joined Earl. The Nha Trang team likewise wrestled with whether to stay or go; those with language skills were not in a position to stay, and those without those skills wanted to stay. They eventually all came to Sài Gòn. We then arranged for all personnel without assignment to travel to Bangkok.
The dramatic days of April 1975 are forever implanted in our memories. When I left Sài Gòn on April 26—planning to return in just a few days—I said goodbye to Max Ediger and Jim Klassen, We were hopeful that Earl and Hiro were getting along alright although we had not heard from them in weeks. The capitulation of the Sài Gòn government on April 30 began a new era for all the Vietnamese people, and I was disappointed that I was not there to share this new experience with local staff members, with friends in the church, and persons in our local community. Yet it soon became clear to even the four men who stayed that they needed to leave as the new Việt Nam developed.
I was privileged to be a member of the MCC delegation to visit this new Việt Nam in November 1975. Periodic visits became the model for the way MCC related to Việt Nam until reestablishing an in-country office in 1990.
It is common for people to experience several distinct careers in their lifetimes. For me, the experience with Việt Nam Mennonite Mission and with MCC in Việt Nam was determinative. Past was prologue once I arrived back in the U.S. While becoming a pastor of a small Mennonite church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, I also became involved in various Việt Nam-related projects, encouraging the formation of Vietnamese churches in the U.S., working two decades as a caseworker for Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, supporting Vietnamese programs, and organizing and leading numerous groups to Việt Nam.
A few words about these groups: I returned to Việt Nam in 1995 on an assignment with Eastern Mennonite Mission to explore possible involvement in the country. I invited our oldest son to accompany me on this trip, and our daughter and younger son have also been able to visit the country of their childhood. On the 1995 trip, after I met with government officials and NGO administrators in Hà Nội, we traveled to Sài Gòn by train and were able to meet many friends. I traveled to Việt Nam again the following year, this time with my wife Mary and with Gerry Keener—this was a prelude to Gerry and Donna Keener moving to Việt Nam in 1997. I went again in 1999 as an interpreter for Glenn Kauffman, an EMM administrator. Concerned that I might not be able to visit Việt Nam regularly, which I very much wanted to do, I gave serious consideration to leading a tour group to Việt Nam. TourMagination accepted my proposal, and Mary and I were back in Việt Nam in February 2001.
Leading eight tours to Việt Nam in the following years provided opportunities to introduce this beautiful country with wonderful people to around one hundred persons—primarily from the United States and Canada, but also from Germany and Paraguay. For Mary and me, these tours enabled us to connect with people that we had known before 1975. We also made new friends in many of the places we visited. We learned to know Lê Anh Kiệt, the former Foreign Minister officer who worked with MCC Hà Nội for more than ten years. We learned to know historian and artist Phan Thuận An in Huế. We visited Mỹ Lai site in Quảng Ngãi and met survivors of the massacre. On each of the tours, when in Hà Nội we met with the MCC staff—both expatriate and local—and in Ho Chi Minh City we invited the EMM personnel and the leaders of the Việt Nam Mennonite Church to dinner. In 2012 and 2016 we were able to attend the first session of the quadrennial Mennonite Church conferences in Ho Chi Minh City. In each of our tours, we were able to connect with the pastor of the Mennonite Church in Hội An, whom I had first met in 1999. On each of our tours we were able to receive donations from tour members to support specific projects. Persons from each of the tour groups have contributed to help the Hội An church construct a new worship center in a flood-free zone in 2017.
Once, while living in Allentown, we went with friends to see the Broadway show Miss Sài Gòn. I was struck with the comment of an American GI in the show, “I never left Việt Nam.” Neither have I.