BIBLE SOCIETY NEWS | Kaley Payne
Thursday 11 June 2015
At 24 years old, La Van Sua is the most educated person in his village, and the pastor of a church of 80 people. But La Van Sua didn’t finish high school. Conditions in his village were poor, and his family needed him. He comes from a subsistence farming family – they, just like the majority of his village, live off what they can grow. Education is a luxury here.
His village is in Bac Kan, a forested, mountainous region 200 km due north of Hanoi in Vietnam and just south of the Chinese border. The village is only accessible by foot or motorcycle, perched at the end of a two kilometre, steep and narrow mountain track.
La Van Sua’s people are Hmong, an ethnic group found in the mountains of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. There are just over a million Hmong in Vietnam, from a population of nearly 90 million.
Christianity came to La Van Sua’s village in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War. Thousands of Hmong people fled Vietnam and Laos during the conflict, emigrating to the United States.
Many villages across Vietnam and Laos were given radios during the war, by either US agents operating in the mountains or the Vietnam communist party, as a way of disseminating propaganda. The radio became one of the only sources of entertainment for those who remained, particularly in remote villages.
At the same time, the Far East Broadcasting Company was broadcasting Christian radio programmes into South East Asia, including some run by Hmong people who had escaped to the US and found Christianity. The programmes used Hmong oral history to weave Bible stories over the airwaves. God’s message of love and hope during a time of bitter conflict spoke directly to La Van Sua’s village. After the war, the village was converted to Christianity.
Now, decades later, La Van Sua feels the weight of responsibility for the Christians in his village. Over 30 per cent cannot read or write. They rely on him to preach the word so that they might listen.
Support for pastors like La Van Sua is rare, but he was blessed to take part in a series of Bible classes at newly created Hanoi Bible College, to prepare him to lead his congregation. He travelled the distance from Bac Kan to Hanoi many times – nearly four hours each way – for three years to attend.
Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist countries, and while conditions are changing quickly, oppression is still keenly felt. It is a place full of contradictions. While still communist in ideology, in practice capitalism is everywhere and the gap between rich and poor is drastically increasing. The contradictions extend to how the government treats religious groups.
In 2013, Vietnam’s communist party revised their official religion policy, issuing Decree 92 which placed severe restrictions on the freedom to worship. All religious groups must apply for official recognition to have permission to meet for worship. To be recognised, churches must be free of civil and criminal infractions for 20 years – almost inconceivable for Christians who have been hunted by the Vietnamese government for decades.
Hundreds of house churches – including La Van Sua’s – risked closure as they could not be registered. Yet the government has been inconsistent in this. Churches are denied registration, and some house churches have been closed, while others have been allowed to continue. They are at the mercy of party officials in each district.
“Some years ago there were many arrests in our area,” La Van Sua says. “We had to hold our church service very late at night – we couldn’t do it in daylight. The problem was with permission to hold the church at all. The district’s authorities made it very difficult. Now, we hope it’s better. We hope.”
La Van Sua’s village hasn’t been allowed to build a church. Villagers meet in a thatched hut that also serves as living quarters for La Van Sua’s uncle and a storehouse of corn and cabbage harvests. There are about 100 people in the village; 80 of them come to church, though some only rarely. But only about 30 can read and write.
La Van Sua’s biggest prayer is that God would bring many in his village back to practising their faith – those who have stopped attending church regularly because they find it hard to understand.
“I pray that people will come back to listen, that they’ll come back to God. I believe they are Christian and still believe, but they don’t participate in church activities.”
For La Van Sua, one of the biggest issues is trying to grow people in their faith. “Those who can’t read, just come and listen,” he says. “But the problem is, how to help them understand.”
Bible Society in Vietnam is partnering with local churches to begin Bible-based literacy classes in the country. The literacy project is in its first year, based on a successful model used in Cambodia to teach thousands of people to read through church networks. The classes are audio-based so there’s no need to have trained teachers – a scarce skill across northern Vietnam. Instead, participants will be able to listen to the classes and follow along with written materials.
“This is a first for us in Vietnam,” said Arun Sok Nhep, the chief executive of Bible Society in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. But he says it is an essential next step in the growth of the church in Vietnam. “We’re targeting the minorities – particularly in the north of Vietnam – for our classes, because it is they who often don’t have access to education.”
Mr Sok Nhep says there is a lot of work to do to get the project off the ground in Vietnam, but the enthusiasm is great. “Their desire is to read the Bible. This is a big motivation.”
There is a lot of work to be done in supporting pastors and their flocks in remote villages in Vietnam – to ensure they can read the Bible for themselves, that their people have access to a Bible and that those people are able to read it for themselves and for the spread of the gospel.
Back in his village, La Van Sua says he continues to pray to God for help in leading his church. “I just pray that God will give me the ability to learn and lead my group. I pray that God will lead me.”
Help La Van Sua, and many other pastors like him in ministering to their flock.
Bible Society Australia is posting a #photoaday on Instagram during June, travelling through South East Asia as part of its appeal to raise funds for literacy, translation and Bible distribution work in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Follow their journey, here.