BOOK REVIEW: A Vietnam Presence

Posted by Daniel Mast on

A Vietnam Presence: Mennonites in Vietnam During the American War

By Luke S. Martin

Reviewed by Reg Reimer, author of Vietnam’s Christians: A Century of Growth in Adversity (2011).

At 584 pages this is an intimidating tome! Reading it, however, quickly brings the realization that it is the kind of careful historical and theological reflection that mission communities should but rarely do. Martin was an active participant and thoughtful observer in the drama he describes in great and interesting detail.

The book covers the two-decade history of Mennonite “presence” in Vietnam. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) began service in 1954 and the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC) in 1957. From then until the 1975 communist victory, some 120 foreigners served with MCC and 22 with the EMBMC. MCC, an Inter-Mennonite organization, aimed to serve humanitarian needs “In the name of Christ.” EMBMC’s purpose was to win Vietnamese to Christian faith and establish them in churches.

The large book is divided into three sub-sections: Engagement - 1954-63, Partnership - 1964-1970, and Transition - 1971-75. The book has helpful personnel lists, an annotated bibliography, a glossary, and an extensive index. It is well illustrated with photographs.

Mennonites, being of pacifist and anti-war persuasion, had special challenges serving in a war zone in which the foreign protagonist, the US, was the home country of most of their workers. It impacted their relationship with other missions, with Vietnamese churches and with the US and Vietnamese governments, as well as producing internal tensions.

Nevertheless, MCC in particular, worked hard from the outset to carry on their work in partnership with other missions and with the established indigenous Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN). In the early years the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), whose theology was almost exclusively focused on evangelism, was an ambivalent partner. Its top executives feared MCC’s focus on the social/cultural mandate of the Gospel would drain resources away from evangelism. Field workers of the C&MA and MCC organizations experienced less tension as together they faced of massive human need. MCC’s later partnership with Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief in Vietnam, in Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS), eventually proved problematic in other directions. Martin describes the inevitable tensions and conflicts in an honest and balanced way. There are valuable lessons here for missional partnership today.

The Mennonites, because of their pacifist position, I think, were more attentive to the larger political dramas playing out than were other missionaries whose strong anti-communism led many to be pro-war. Martin’s telling of the story explains these dramas quite fully and always keeps them accessible in the background.

One of the book’s great strengths is the liberal use of both official and personal missionary communication which was produced in the crucible of the times. This feature, made possible by the author’s personal relationship with most of the players, gives the narrative both authenticity and immediacy. Martin relates many interesting anecdotes and some harrowing experiences in a low-key way which, ironically, has the effect of intensifying them.

As he records the story Martin bravely asks the question about if and how the Mennonite “presence” was being faithful in its witness to Christ in a deeply troubled situation. Also considered is whether the activities of Mennonite missionaries and aid workers reflected an authentic balance between witness and service. Martin not only reflects on this personally, but sought the opinions of others outside his tradition. Such refection appears regularly throughout the book and is cogently summarized in a six-page afterword.

As a scholar of Vietnamese Christianity, I find this thoughtful book a challenge to other missionary organizations which served in Vietnam longer and with more people than the Mennonites. Now, forty-two years after the end of the American/Vietnam War, missionary protagonists who served then and there are fast going to their reward, and with them irreplaceable information and experience. I am afraid much first-hand knowledge and experience will be lost if the needed refection on missionary service in the war begins only after they pass. Martin has provided a template of very high standard for such reflection.

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