MCC service worker Chris Kimmel in Vietnam in 1966 with youth and their chicken raising project at the Hue Lay Leadership Training Center (MCC photo)
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matt. 25:35)
Luke Martin is a former Eastern Mennonite Missions worker in Vietnam. He has worked tirelessly as an advocate for the Mennonite churches in Vietnam in recent years. Several weeks ago, I met Luke at a gathering on the MCC campus in Akron PA of agencies and people who work in Vietnam.
Luke told this story which will appear in a future book he is writing. His story relies on A Full and Rewarding Life: A Memoir, by Paul Leatherman and I am relying on Luke as I tell this story to you:
In 1966 MCC began administering Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS), a joint program with Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief. VNCS was providing services to thousands of internal refugees in central Vietnam. While personnel at Quang Ngai were pleased to be able to assist these refugees, they resisted being considered part of the American “pacification” program which in 1967 was placed directly under the military command of General Westmoreland. Doug Hostetter at Tam Ky also caught the ire of an American colonel at Tam Ky who thought he was giving assistance to people in country villages not supporting the government, and asked that he be transferred.
Since service agencies had to partially rely on American military logistical support because of the insecurity of the country, VNCS director Paul Leatherman and representatives of three other voluntary agencies requested a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker to protest the pressures they felt to become part of the “American team.” They insisted that they needed freedom to determine their own programs with Vietnamese authorities and to assign their personnel. They also wanted the Embassy to restore their priority status on American planes which had been recently downgraded.
On September 14, 1967 they met Ambassador Bunker at the Embassy. The Ambassador told them that voluntary agency personnel did not have the right to oppose U.S. or Vietnamese government policies, and that no aid could be given to the Viet Cong.
Paul Leatherman told the Ambassador that “there would be a strong backlash in the United States if it was learned that this change of priority status effectively shut down the work of the voluntary agencies." Ambassador Bunker responded that he had heard that VNCS operated several hospitals and wondered if this was true. After Leatherman described the medical program, the Ambassador asked, “Are you treating any Viet Cong (VC) in your hospitals?” Leatherman told him that they did not ask patients for their ID cards. If people were sick and needed hospital care they were admitted. If wounded persons appeared at the hospital the doctors repaired their wounds.
The Ambassador went on to ask about the feeding programs in the refugee camps. Leatherman told him about the extensive feeding program for children in these camps. Again the Ambassador asked, “Are you feeding children of the VC?” Again, Leatherman responded that they did not check ID cards of the persons in the feeding program. If children were hungry and starving, they were fed. Ambassador Bunker, by this time quite aggravated, responded, “You know the VC are the enemy. If you are feeding the VC and treating them in your hospitals, this is treason and you know the penalty for treason.”
Leatherman reports that the Spirit gave him these words to speak: “Mr. Ambassador, VNCS is here doing the work of the church. We follow a book that you may or may not be familiar with. It commands us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, and to clothe the naked. I know what the penalty is if we do not do that for whatever reason.”
Within a half-hour after the meeting Leatherman received a call from the Ambassador’s assistant who told him he should quickly return to straighten out his “problem” with the Ambassador. Leatherman said he had no problem with the Ambassador and if Bunker had a problem, he should call him! Leatherman met the Ambassador on several later occasions, but this encounter was never mentioned again.
I thank God for the faithful witness for peace of Mennonite Christians during the challenging era of the Vietnam War. In the gathering in Akron, Luke Martin also recounted that EMM and MCC mission workers together issued several letters to their home constituencies in North America stating their concerns about the war.
My prayer is that the church today will continue in this tradition of providing a bold witness for peacemaking as followers of Jesus Christ.
Ron Byler is executive director for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.