Vietnamese boat people were more than just people—they were our dear family

One Saturday night in the early fall of 1979, Cherry and I were watching a documentary on tv about the Vietnamese refugees who had left Vietnam in boats, ending up on the coast of Malaysia, being kicked off under death threats until they came to rest on some of the smaller islands of Indonesia.  Tens of thousands of them were leaving Vietnam.  Our hearts were both touched.  Jesus’ words in Matt 25, about taking care of the homeless, the hungry and the sick hit us squarely between the eyes.  People were clamoring to get off these islands, and were simply waiting for sponsors in the US, France and the UK. It may have even been a World Vision documentary . . . I don’t remember.

We talked about our possible involvement that evening after the the show.  Cherry had been a volunteer tutor in English for a man named Binh in a language school.  Binh was a Chinese-Vietnamese who had escaped from Vietnam several years earlier.  After hearing his story we both felt like we needed to do more. The next day, the Sunday newspaper featured a front page article about the need for sponsors for the Vietnamese  refugees.  It was almost  identical to what we had seen the night before.  Except that it described  clearly how to get involved through US Catholic Charities (USCC) right there in Spokane. It even had a phone number to call.

So, we prayed that day and both of us felt like sponsoring one of these families was the right thing to do.  We called USCC the next morning, talked to the person in charge, Minh, and signed up.  He said that it would definitely be a few months, but that we were on the list, and would be given people to care for, house, teach, clothe, get medical treatment for, etc.  About a month later, Cherry felt a little overwhelmed, and so we called and opted out.

That lasted about a week.  We called back, talked to Minh again, and he gladly put us back on the list.  Most sponsors were churches, or groups of people.  Not many were individuals. We would be doing this on our own.

So we prayed a lot.  We prayed that we would have the financial resources to help them. We also prayed that we would really like them, that they would like us in return, and that the relationship would be a loving and God-honoring one.  Because Cherry had been a  tutor in that Vietnamese language school, she had seen a lot of situations where the refugee families did not have a good relationship with their sponsors. Little did we know how much God would answer those prayers . . . way beyond our imagination.

We made plans to get some free clothing and supplies.  My sister, Judy, put a 3×5 card on the bulletin board where she worked at the hospital.  People responded. One of my Young Life kids’ moms asked her husband, who was a manager of a department at The Crescent, if we could go and pick out whatever we wanted from the huge supply of returned and/or damaged items.  He said yes.  Between the two, we located loads of clothes, blankets, housewares, etc.  Frankly, we were overwhelmed. And then, in addition, we discovered that USCC provided sponsors with $200 per refugee to help with expenses. Judy told us she couldn’t help physically very much, but generously gave us $300 to help.

We got our phone call from Catholic Charities four days before Christmas saying that we were to pick up Hoang and Thu and their six-month old daughter, Tam, at the airport the next evening.  With a mix of anticipation, excitement  and apprehension, we drove through falling snow the next night to meet them.  Binh, Cherry’s student at the language school, had agreed to come and translate for us.   Binh waded right in to the group of thirty or forty Vietnamese, and located Hoang and Thu for us.  We shook hands with Hoang; Thu bowed before us, speaking in Vietnamese with tears coming down her cheeks. Cherry and I were choking back ours, but not very successfully.  That began what has been 34 years of deep love between our families.  We have so many  stories of laughter and language difficulties and visits to doctors and various agencies, teaching them where to catch the bus (we had to learn it first), getting them enrolled in language school, teaching them how to drive, etc.  It was like they had to learn to get on the treadmill of American life and they kept falling off.  So much to learn that we had taken for granted. Watching them eat and eat and eat at our table . . . sleeping on top of the blankets, instead of underneath to keep warm.  Helping them learn words.  Precious time.  They stayed with us for three weeks; we got them into an apartment of their own, fully stocked with food, furniture and clothes, opened a bank account for them, and put $300 into it, with first month’s rent and deposit on the apartment already paid.  We enrolled them in a language school and Hoang got a job lined up for him through Catholic Charities.  And it all happened in a month when we had gotten a short paycheck, which was a very rare occurence.

I’m leaving out lots of details of the next few years, but when we left Spokane to move to Monterey six years later, Thu called us to ask us if we could have pizza at Pizza Haven to say goodbye.  It was our favorite pizza place in the Flower Mill down on the Spokane River.  After some good pizza with lots of reminiscing, Thu and Hoang each gave us a little speech which ended with  “Do you remember that this is the first restaurant you took us to when we arrived in America?”  We did remember.  “You took us here and you bought us pizza.”  Tonight we are buying your pizza.  We love you very much.  You are our family.“photo

God had answered that prayer so completely and overwhelmingly.   We love them dearly to this day.  Six years ago I had he privilege of performing their older daughter’s wedding, and two weeks ago, I had the privilege of performing their younger daughter’s wedding.  As Cherry has so often said . . . ” We felt like we were standing inside a miracle.”  My son David even wrote about his experience in his application to law school, because it touched our family so greatly.


3 comments on “Vietnamese boat people were more than just people—they were our dear family

  1. Dan
    October 3, 2013

    Absolutely beautiful!

  2. Doug
    October 6, 2013

    Great story Joe. Testimony to Jesus words, “That you do have done for the least of these, that you’ve to Me”

  3. Linh
    October 27, 2013

    I read this to my parents tonight. It was difficult to read it all the way through without tears in my eyes. We love you and Cheery dearly!

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