Can anyone ever put a dollar amount on time or freedom? They’re commodities too valuable for a limited measure. Last weekend, a precious, little Vietnamese grandma told me through a translator, “Money would never be enough to pay you for your gifts and your time; you receive what is without price. Your family’s reward is the hearts of people. Tell your parents and siblings I said this, okay?” Her words meant the world to me. In many ways, she was right. Why would we choose to live such an unpredictable, crazy life if it wasn’t for other people?
The midwest U.S. to Asia has been a commonly traveled path for my family these days. We’ve been etching our own silk road in the air over the Pacific for a few years. Home has now been either a distant memory or the hope of future rest in the comfort of familiar surroundings. Since we got back to the U.S. nearly a month ago now, we’ve barely slept in our own beds but have instead been out traveling in nearby states.
This week we were in Pennsylvania and the Washington D.C. beltway. Many of the most historic sites in the country are in the cities we just visited: Gettysburg, D.C., Philadelphia, etc. Ironically, not only have we been reliving the emotions and struggles of our founding fathers by visiting monuments and battlefields but we’ve been sharing our hearts and future with the Vietnamese people here. It’s been a remarkable interweaving of cultures and the past, present, and future of freedom physically and spiritually. We just came from a battlefield in their homeland for the hearts and minds of their people. What’s even more beautiful and precious, as our dear Vietnamese grandma said, is that the relationships built in this exchange have been more priceless and lasting than the original Declaration of Independence or U.S. Constitution that we saw carefully preserved at the National Archives.
Despite how committed and serious all this sounds, bubble tea, bowling, and music were the ways these relationships manifest themselves. My siblings and I have found that those three things are a common thread between the Asian populations of the east and west coasts of this country. We’ve made more memories drinking tapioca balls and throwing gutter balls than I’d imagine most people have. Oh, and I almost forgot the photo ops with faces framed in peace signs. “One more!” are the two most common words in any Asian’s vocabulary (and, through many years of association, ours as well). Loosely translated it means, “Keep pushing the shutter release until your finger hurts.”
It all started at Vietnamese youth camp in New Freedom, PA. two weeks ago. We didn’t know what to expect. Camps are usually pretty straightforward but with the Vietnamese we’ve come to realize nothing is ordinary. In this case, our experience in New Freedom raised the bar in our minds about what a camp is supposed to encourage in kids. The only programmed activities were Bible based and required a lot of focused discussion. My family was in charge of the evening chapels and each of us doubled as group counselors for about 15 kids from the ages of 13 to 30 during the day.
After spending time together all day and most of every night, we felt closer to our group than most people get to one another in such a short period of time. Discussion and devotions brought out deep questions and hurts as if God had already been preparing their hearts for healing. We saw first-time decisions for Jesus Christ and even more commitments to purity and higher standards.
A few days later, we looked up our new friends in their home town and found them in the rougher parts of Philly. Many of them have been shot, mugged, attacked with knives, and pushed around since they were children. Even still, they’ve got the hope of something better because of the fact that “If anyone is in Christ, they’re a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). They’d never visited the historic sites in the area and, between bubble tea in China town until the wee hours of the morning, bowling, and music, we walked all over Independence Hall and the new home of the Liberty Bell. It was a profound reminder of how freedom is born. As Abraham Lincoln later claimed, it all begins “in the minds and hearts of the people.”
At the Vietnam memorial in Philly, we were struck by the fact that had our men in uniform not shed their blood for Vietnam, we would never have known Vinh, Peter, Tiffany, Shannon, Rachel, Nhi, Emperor, Andy, Viet, David, Vi Ba, Huong, Khoa… several of whom were standing with us in downtown Philadelphia looking at the names of the men who died on their behalf. Without the sacrifice now commemorated in rows of names etched across the granite wall, fewer Vietnamese would have known about the spiritual freedom in Jesus that makes all of us family today despite our different cultural backgrounds.
When they hugged us goodbye in the lobby of our hotel at 2:30 AM on our last night and said, “You guys have made a significant impact on us,” I couldn’t help the intense mist that clouded my eyes. I said, “Funny thing about that… you guys did the same to us.” I pray we never lose the capacity to touch and be touched like that. It really is a reward you can’t measure. If my family were to receive nothing else, it would be worth every mile and moment. See you all again soon.