We explore a silky summer evening, airbrushed with cool mountain air and golden sinking light. Newly arrived in Steamboat Springs, we wander west. The river is gift enough, flowing like laughter between us. One of those rare series of moments when you feel so alive, so present to where you are, so thankful to love the people you are with. Our four kids skip rocks and play “Pooh Sticks” on a weathered wood bridge. Then we stumble on a gate hidden in a crook of the path. “Yampa Valley Botanic Park,” a humble sign declares. On the other side, brilliant colors beckon from deepening shadows. One of us lifts the latch and the gate creaks open. Just like that, we freely step into an elaborate secret garden. Paths laced with thriving green and flower bursts lure us deeper, all the more enchanting for being so unexpected.
I remember stumbling upon another secret garden, concealed in the mountain reaches of Vietnam – its light emanating from an altogether “other” source, its vibrant colors shimmering in an altogether different realm:
To travel there, my identity as a Westerner is carefully concealed by a sun hat and rectangular fabric mouth covering hooked over my ears with elastic, commonly used by Vietnamese to screen pollution. When the car rolls to a stop, high on a rocky road, we hustle, heads down, through the door of a home. The people inside motion for us to remove our disguises, and we smile in relief and greeting.
Through our guide, Thanh, we meet the couple who own the home, a man identified as an “evangelist” and his wife. I can’t take my eyes off them. The man is like a mirror reflecting some distant radiance. His glowing, graceful wife settles on a hammock at the back of the room, cradling a young child. Their brilliance, like a late-day wash of sun, dances over a garden of children whispering, wiggling, and giggling on a woven floor mat.
The couple leads a church of about 200 people, a US-based humanitarian aid organization’s hands and feet to sponsor an educational scholarship group of thirty impoverished students and a social worker. The group started with fifteen Christian families and fifteen families of other beliefs. The “pod” we are visiting is one of three in Vietnam serving a total of ninety children.
Just two weeks before our visit, government officials made the rounds of all the families with students in this group. They ordered the parents to withdraw from the program, threatening to confiscate houses or jobs and deny any government aid, such as support in the event of natural disasters. If parents continue in the scholarship program, officials threatened, their children will not be allowed to attend secondary school. The Christians remain resolute and fearless, trusting in God as their ultimate authority. But four of the non-Christian families, immigrants from the North where government oppression is even more severe, withdrew.
We learn that despite multiple offers from outside non-profit organizations to build additional schools in the area, the government adamantly refuses. Children in grades 1-5 attend a school in the village, but those in grades 6-9 walk 14 km round-trip. Students in grades 10-12 re-locate to a boarding school 30 km away where they are not allowed to attend church and have no money to visit their families. The government sponsors an educational loan program, but not for Christians.
Why is the government so afraid of education for these people? The reasons are complex. As recently as five years ago, this particular tribal group peacefully requested the return of their land which was confiscated after the Vietnam War. This area was once a separate country, and the government fears that they will attempt to secede from Vietnam. Army and police officers quickly and violently squelched demonstrations. Keeping the people deliberately uneducated is a blatant strategy to keep them oppressed. Christians, in particular, are viewed as a threat. They are not afraid of the government and they refuse to subscribe to the unified ideology of Communism. Additionally, many tribal Christians sided with the Americans in the Vietnam War and represent a long-held defiance of the government.
After interviewing some of the students, we ask more questions about the evangelist and the church. When Thanh translates that the evangelist is on the government “Black List,” the man laughs with a razor sharp glint in his eyes of unshakeable confidence, unbending will, and untarnished worship. Again and again, he recalls, government officials admonished him to stop inciting the people to praise God. I see it in my mind’s eye: he bows his head in respect as they berate him, unflinching, trying to hide that blinding smile. Then he watches the receding dust of their vehicles, turns on his heel, and steps back into the church to lead his people. Like the early church in Acts, they cry out to God, not for protection from their oppressors, but for increased boldness.
In Vietnam, churches are openly persecuted until they reach a critical mass of about one hundred. They can then submit an application for “recognition” by the government, a status through which they are supposed to experience religious freedom. Many never receive recognition, even after growing to more than three hundred members. In some parts of Vietnam, even “recognition” guarantees little religious freedom. This particular church reached the capacity to qualify for recognition, but has been denied in retaliation for the evangelist’s defiance through the years.
When the body of believers began construction on a church building next to his house, government officials demanded that they stop. Church members called on a major leader of the denomination, well-known by the government and protected by multiple connections with outsiders. He drove up the winding mountain road and stood resolutely in the middle of the construction.
“Kill me,” he told the officials, “but they are going to build this church.”
The leaders grumbled amongst themselves and finally said, “Fine, we’ll just return when it is complete and tear it down.”
When they came back, the believers gathered; and the officials withdrew again.
We don our disguises and walk to the nearby home of one of the Christian students. In a style common to the area, a weathered wood structure is raised on short stilts for ventilation. The nine-year-old girl’s father abandoned the family, and her mother labors in nearby fields to provide subsistence. We duck into the interior, all its meager contents visible in one room: a kitchen area with open cooking arrangement on the floor, shelves with food staples, a sack stuffed with clothing hanging from a roof beam, and a wooden bed draped in mosquito netting with a woven mat in place of a mattress. As we are leaving, the girl’s mother hurries towards us, a baby on her hip and a basket of farming utensils strapped to her back. With that same unearthly smile of the luminous evangelist, she thanks us profusely for making it possible for her daughter to attend school.
Before we leave the village, we pause in the sacred space of the church sanctuary, flush with serenity. Our new friends tell us the story of a nearby church that was ransacked and destroyed in 2010. A spokes-person from the largest government-recognized denomination in Vietnam, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) said, “There was no reason for this – it is religious persecution, pure and simple, incited and allowed by local government officials.” (June 2010, Compass Direct News.)
A reverent breeze wafts through open windows and doors, bearing the pungent fragrance of bare red-brown soil prepped for planting. Misty mountains and fertile sugarcane fields sprawl beyond intricate metal-scrolled window frames. Zeal and joy reach for the open sky, here in this most unlikely place.
We bow our heads in prayer. When it is my turn, I offer my small, seemingly insignificant gift in a place already pulsing with the very Presence of God – I simply ask for more of what they already so bountifully possess. I have no doubt that God is standing in our very midst. I know, because I see His radiance reflected on the evangelist’s face.
Thanh puts it this way, “Every day, we pray for our people and the authorities, too. They do not know what they do. They need the Light. We always choose the solution ‘conquer them with love’.”
This clandestine garden in Vietnam looms large in my memory – all the more mysterious and wondrous for its hiddenness, its unexpectedness. I feel incredibly privileged to have stumbled upon it; its gate suddenly appearing in the crook of my life-path. The surreptitious flowers of Steamboat emblazon my heart with gratitude. The secret garden in Vietnam took root in my soul. I slip back through the gate in my mind, and I am intoxicated with the heady scent of courage, growing strong and free.