In the early 1970s, Ravi Zacharias (who just died this past Tuesday) went to the country of Vietnam, during the war, to do work in evangelism. After several months touring the country with his interpreter Hien, he departed to return to the North America, leaving his friend and interpreter behind. Ravi tells the story of receiving a call years later in the middle of the night from Hien. What follows is an amazing story of God’s providential care:
After Vietnam, I hadn’t known whether my young interpreter friend was even still alive. Now, as my excitement gushed forth, he explained, “I am in San Francisco.” “What are you doing here, Hien?” “Have you got time to listen?” If ever I had the time for anything, it was this. After Vietnam fell, Hien was captured by the Vietcong and imprisoned. They accused him of collaborating with the CIA, since he had worked with missionaries. In prison, they worked him over, telling him again and again that he had been brainwashed by Westerners. They took away his Bible and forbade him to speak English, the language he had loved, permitting him to use only Vietnamese or French.
“There is no such thing as God,” came the refrain from his captors, day after hellish day. The hour finally came when Hien wondered, “Maybe they are right. Maybe there is no such thing as God.” As he thought back to some of my sermons and the shared blessings we had enjoyed, he wondered if perhaps I had been deluded too. That night he went to bed, muttering to himself, “I’m through with God. When I wake up in the morning, no more God, no more prayer.”
The new day dawned, and the commanding officer of the prison barked out the assignments for the day. Hien was to clean the latrines. He cringed when he heard it. It was the ultimate form of indignity for the prisoners. The latrines were the absolute dregs of human filth, and Hien spent the entire day in those inhospitable surroundings. His final task was to empty the trash cans, which were filled with soiled toilet paper. All day long, he labored with reminders to himself — “No God today.” But as his work was coming to an end, something in the last trash can happened to catch his eye. It was a piece of paper with printed type. As Hien looked closer, he saw it was in English. Hungry to read this language again, he looked around to make sure nobody was watching. He hastily rinsed off the filth and tucked the paper into his pocket. That night, after everyone had fallen asleep, he carefully took out his flashlight and removed the still damp paper from his pocket. In the upper right-hand corner of the page were the words “Romans 8.” The Bible. Hien, in a state of shock, began reading.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” He read on. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Hien began crying. Of all the Scripture verses he had known, these were the ones he most needed to hear, and now they had come back to him. “Lord,” he realized, “you would not let me out of your reach for even one day.” He turned over in his bed that night and prayed. The next morning, when he saw the commanding officer, Hien asked him, “Sir, would you mind if I cleaned the latrines again?” The officer stared at him, quite puzzled. Thinking Hien was being rather arrogant, he decided to assign him to the latrines indefinitely. “You are going to clean them every day, until I tell you to stop,” he commanded. Hien did not know it in the beginning, but the officer himself had been tearing out those pages from the Bible and using them for toilet paper. Now, each day, Hien rinsed them clean, hid them in his pocket, and used them for his devotions at night. He ended up collecting numerous passages from the book of Romans, as well as from other books of the Bible.
After a while, he was let out of prison, and he started to plan his escape from the country. Some fifty others, including a high-powered political family, were involved in this attempt, Hien’s third after two failed previous attempts. As the days passed, they worked to build a boat that would be able to navigate the high seas. A few days before they were to leave, two Vietcong confronted Hien. “Are you planning to escape?” they demanded. “No.”
“Tell us the truth.” “I am telling you the truth.” “Are you lying to us?” “No.” As they left, Hien was filled with remorse. He’d felt he had no choice but to lie, especially since it would have put the others at risk. Now he prayed, “Lord, I want you to be in control of my life again. I am sorry that I lied. Here I am again, depending on my own wisdom. If you want me to tell those men the truth, send them back to me. I promise I will tell the truth.” They did come back — just hours before the group’s departure time. Only now, there were four Vietcong, and they grabbed Hien, pushing him against a wall. “We know you’re going to leave,” they said. “Yes, I am,” he admitted, “with fifty-two others. Are you going to put me back in prison?” “No,” they whispered. “We want to go with you.” Hien was rendered speechless. At first, he wondered if it was a trap. But it wasn’t — the four Vietcong did go with them. Once they hit the high seas, the boat was rocked by a terrible storm. “Brother Ravi,” Hien told me, “if it weren’t for those four men, we would not have made it. They had a tremendous ability to sail.” Days later, they arrived safely in Thailand, and Hien was free.
Eventually he made it to San Francisco, and, after earning a degree from the University of California (Berkeley), married, had children, he now ran a financial planning firm and still walking faithfully with the Lord after all these years.