I Came to Christ at a Church That Loves Refugees

When my mother and aunties fled to America, God was their Deliverer. They just didn’t know it yet.
I Came to Christ at a Church That Loves Refugees
Image: Tom Maday

Tell us the story again?”

I remember those warm summer nights, lying next to my aunties. Some of us would be on a mattress on the floor; the others, the lucky ones, got the bed. There wasn’t enough room for three aunties and four nieces in the attic room with the sloped ceiling. But I was warm and comfortable, sleepy and secure lying beside them.

“Again?” one auntie would say. “But you already know it.”

My sisters and I would plead. “Please? We want to hear it one more time.”

And one of them would give in.

“It was a warm night, like this one. . . .”

My mother, her siblings, and her parents were in their home. It was April 30, 1975, a warm evening in Saigon, South Vietnam. This night would become known as the Fall of Saigon and the end of the 20-year-long war for Vietnam. My mother’s family had just finished dinner when a loud explosion blew out the windows at the back of the house.

My grandmother had worked for 20 years as a translator and administrative assistant at a branch of the US Department of Defense. Her office coordinated intelligence shared between the US Army and the South Vietnamese military. She was recognized as a hard and loyal worker. Her boss, an American, had assured her over a period of weeks that when the time was right, he would send word about where to go with her whole family. “Don’t worry, Rebecca. We won’t leave without you. We’ll make sure you are taken care of.”

But she had not heard from him in days. She did not know that he had already left the country, leaving her and her family behind without so much as a telephone call.

Now, with her family sprawled across the floor, their ears ringing from the blast, my grandmother decided: It’s time to go.

Displaced

With explosions shaking the street and homes nearby, the family scrambled. My mother and her siblings each packed a small bag of essential items. Outside the house, they could hear chaos. Bombs were exploding, taking down shops, houses, and people. They ducked low, making their way from ditch to ditch, crawling toward the airport. It took them all night to get there.

At dawn, they arrived at the airport security gates. My grandmother showed her papers to the guards, telling them her boss’s name. “He told me he get us out,” she said in broken English. “He tell me my whole family can come.”

The guard shook his head. “I’m sorry. Your name isn’t on this list.”

“Please!” my grandmother begged. “I work for you, for the Americans. They will kill us all. Take this.” She grabbed from her bag the gold jewelry and small items of value she had taken from the house. “Please,” she said. “Take all of this.”

The guard took all of it, then let them through the gate.

Somehow, my mother’s family made it to the evacuation point. There, thousands of other Vietnamese waited to board helicopters that would fly them to ships. They were permitted to take nothing. They stood, waiting, emptyhanded, nothing to show for their lives, with no idea of what was to come.

As my mother and her family neared the front of the line, soldiers were barking orders, trying to fill each helicopter to maximum capacity. My grandparents and uncles urged the girls to get on the first available chopper.

“No!” my aunties and my mother cried. “We cannot separate!”

But my grandfather insisted. “You cannot wait! You go ahead of us so we can make sure you get out. We will be right behind you!” They finally agreed.

In the chaos, my grandparents and uncles lost sight of them. They did not see which chopper they boarded, though they were pretty sure it was the one they were watching.

As the chopper lifted off, they watched it power ahead into the darkness. Suddenly, the sky lit up. The helicopter exploded as a missile tore through it. My grandparents and uncles looked on in horror, believing that they had just lost the four young women in their lives. “No!” my grandfather said, turning toward my uncles. “That should have been us.”

It would be another two weeks before they discovered they had been mistaken; the girls had boarded another helicopter, then a military ship that took them to the Philippines and, after that, Guam.

When my mother and aunties first disembarked from the helicopter that night, they turned and waited for the next helicopters to bring their parents and brothers. But with each helicopter that emptied, they saw no familiar faces. They waited. And waited.

Turning to strangers, they asked, “Please! We cannot find our parents!” People shook their heads. Some murmured that not all of the helicopters had made it. My mother and her sisters wept.

The ship that carried the women to Guam did not have enough food or space for the thousands crammed into it. Each family was given a bowl of rice and a can of milk daily. My mother would describe how her stomach gnawed at itself, how her eyes grew larger in her head. She would give her daily spoonful of rice to her youngest sister. When my mother reached the United States, she weighed 90 pounds.

In Guam, the girls lived in tents on a US Army base. There, one of my aunties stumbled across my grandfather. It was a miracle that they found each other amid the chaotic crowds and tents. When the whole family was reunited, they held each other, overwhelmed at the mystery of this blessing. “I am never, ever letting you out of my sight again,” my grandmother told the girls.

Rescued from Certain Death

My grandparents were well-educated. They had provided comfortably for my mother and her siblings their whole lives. But they had left Vietnam with only the clothes on their backs. And the United States was full of antiwar and anti-Vietnamese sentiments. They were refugees from a war that nobody had wanted to fight.

Far away, at a small Baptist church in Indiana, some Christians were convinced that God’s heart was for those whom nobody wanted.

Yet a generation later, my sisters and I were here, snuggled up next to our aunties, listening to the tale of a family who crossed the sea, emptyhanded, to a new land—and flourished there. How had our family’s story ended so well?

Far away, at a small Baptist church in Lafayette, Indiana, some Christians were convinced that God’s heart was for those whom nobody wanted. Together, they committed to sponsoring a refugee family. They raised money, found housing, and provided clothing and furniture. Then they opened their hearts and their homes to a strange family from a foreign land.

My mother’s family knew nothing about Jesus or the church when they lived in Vietnam. But as they were welcomed by this church, they encountered a generosity they had never witnessed. “It wasn’t just the money and the things they provided,” my mother would say. “My country was full of hardness, violence, and constant fighting. We saw in these people a kindness we had never seen before.”

Despite the language barrier, my grandfather couldn’t wait to go to church each Sunday. My aunts and uncles looked forward to youth group. And over time, my mother and her family began to realize how they had been saved—not just from war and death in Vietnam, but also from a life lived without a warm, generous, and compassionate God.

Each time I heard my aunties recount this story, in my child’s mind I pictured my mother’s family coming across the sea, journeying through the waters. These were the waters of their Exodus, the waters of their own baptism, the waters that God would part in order to show himself as their Deliverer. This was their Passover story—the night they were rescued from certain death by a God who protected them when they had no home, and numbered them among his people.

This is also my story. I grew up knowing that I existed because somewhere in the world, a group of people believed that a merciful God was asking them to show mercy to those who needed it. I grew up knowing that this sort of God was a God worth trusting. His mercy echoes down through the generations.

Juliet Liu Waite is a co-pastor at Life on the Vine, a church in the Chicago suburbs.

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I Came to Christ at a Church That Loves Refugees