The story of Hien Pham, as told by Ravi Zacharias

From a speech by Ravi Zacharias:

During my ministry in Vietnam in 1971, one of my interpreters who traveled with me was Hien Pham, an energetic, devoted young Christian who had worked very closely as a translator with the American military forces, purely as a civilian, with no official or military responsibilities. He just knew English so well that he was able to be of immense help to them in their linguistic struggles.

By virtue of that same strength he also worked with the missionaries. He and I traveled the length of the country and became very close friends before I bade him good-bye when I left Vietnam to return home. We were both very young, and neither of us knew if our paths would cross again. Within four years, Vietnam fell, and Hien’s fate was unknown.

Seventeen years later, in 1988, I received a surprise telephone call than began with, “Brother Ravi?” Immediately I recognized Hien’s voice. We got caught up with our pleasantries, then I asked him how he had managed to get out of Vietnam and come to the United States. I was not prepared for the story I was about to hear.

Shortly after Vietnam fell to the Communists, Hien was arrested. Accused of aiding and abetting the Americans he was in and out of prison for several years. During one long jail term, the sole purpose of his jailers was to indoctrinate him against the West — and especially against democratic ideals and the Christian faith. He was cut off from reading anything in English and restricted to communist propaganda in French or Vietnamese.

This daily overdose of the writings of Marx and Engels began to take its toll on him. One of the books he was given to read pictured the communist man as a bird in the ironclad cage of capitalism, throwing itself against the bars of “capitalist oppression” and bloodying itself in the process. Yet still it continued to struggle in its quest for freedom.

Hien began to buckle under the onslaught. Maybe, he thought, I have been lied to. Maybe God does not exist. Maybe my whole life has been governed by lies. Maybe the West has deceived me. The more he thought, the more he moved toward a decision. Finally, he made up his mind. He determined that when he awakened the next day, he would not pray anymore or ever think of his Christian faith again.

The next morning, he was assigned to clean the latrines of the prison. It was the most dreaded chore, shunned by everyone, and so with much distress he began the awful task. As he cleaned out a tin can filled to overflowing with toilet paper, his eye caught what he thought was English printed on one piece of paper. He hurriedly washed it off and slipped it into his hip pocket, planning to read it at night. Not having seen anything in English for such a long time, he anxiously waited for a free moment.

Under the mosquito net that night after his roommates had fallen asleep, he pulled out a small flashlight and shinning it on the damp piece of paper he read at the top corner, “Romans, Chapter 8.” Literally trembling with shock, he began to read:

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…. 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 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. (Rom. 8:28, 31, 32, 35, 37-39)

Hien wept. He knew his Bible, and he had not seen one for so long. Not only that, he knew there was not a more relevant passage of conviction and strength for one on the verge of surrendering to the threat of evil. He cried out to God, asking for forgiveness, for this was to have been the first day in years that he had determined not to pray. Evidently the Lord had other plans.

The next day, Hien asked the camp commander if he could clean the latrine again. He continued with this chore on a regular basis, because he had discovered that some official in the camp was using a Bible as toilet paper. Each day Hien picked up a portion of Scripture and cleaned it off, and added it to his nightly devotional reading. In this way he retrieved a significant portion of the Bible.

The day came when, through an equally providential set of circumstances, Hien was released. He promptly began to make plans to escape from the country. After several unsuccessful attempts he began again to build a boat in secret. About fifty-three other people planned to escape with him, and Hien was taking the lead.

All was going according to plan until a short while before the date of their departure when four Vietcong knocked on Hien’s door. When he opened it, they accosted him and said they had heard he was trying to escape. “Is it true?” they demanded.

Hien immediately denied it and went on to distract them with some concocted story to explain his activities. Apparently convinced, they reluctantly left.

Hien was relieved but very disappointed with himself. “Here I go again, Lord, trying to manipulate my own destiny, too unteachable in my spirit to really believe that You can lead me past any obstacle.” He made a promise to God, fervently hoping that the Lord would not take him up on it. He prayed that if the Vietcong were to come back again, he would tell them the truth.

Resting in the comfort of that impossibility, he was thoroughly shaken when only a few hours before they were to set sail the four men stood at his door once more. “We have our sources, and we know you are trying to escape. Is it true?”

Hien resignedly gave the answer, “Yes, I am with fifty-three others. Are you going to imprison me again?” There was a pronounced pause. And then they leaned forward and whispered, “No. We want to escape with you!”

In an utterly incredible escape plan, all fifty-eight of them found themselves on the high seas, suddenly engulfed by a violent storm. Hien fell with his face in his hands, crying out to God, “Did You bring us here to die?”

As he concluded his story, he said, “Brother Ravi, those four Vietcong were all fishermen who were quite skilled at handling a boat, and if it were not for the sailing ability of those four Vietcong, we would have not made it.”

They arrived safely in Thailand, and years later Hien arrived on American soil where today he is a businessman- forever grateful for America and praying that she would open her heart as a nation to Christ.

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