Challenges and learnings: MCC medical work in Vietnam during the war years


Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.

Drafted by the U.S. government and accepting the invitation to perform alternative service through MCC, I arrived in Vietnam with my wife amidst the war between the North and the South with massive interference from the U.S. military. We were joined by other volunteers from Canada, the United States, Japan, India, Indonesia and the Philippines to work at two MCC hospitals. For some, it was our first plane ride. As idealistic, young MCC workers, steeped in Matthew 25 and the Sermon on the Mount, we were committed to the belief that the kingdom of God deserves our primary loyalty above country and that these understandings are best expressed through acts of service to people in need. Taking an MCC assignment was one way to put that belief into practice.

We were opposed to war and committed to the belief that the kingdom of God deserves our primary loyalty above country and that these understandings are best expressed through acts of service to people in need.

Since its entry into Vietnam in 1954, MCC had partnered with the Vietnamese Protestant church. This Tin Lanh church was the outgrowth of evangelistic work carried out by the Christian and Missionary Alliance since 1911. The Alliance’s emphasis was on saving souls, planting churches and training local pastors. These life-long missionaries were fluent in the language and supportive of the U.S. involvement in the war. 

The medical initiatives arose from the vision of several Tin Lanh leaders. The understanding between the Tin Lanh church and MCC stated that the church would appoint the administrator, support staff and oversee spiritual ministries. MCC would provide doctors, nurses and an operating subsidy. One MCC doctor served as the medical director and a member of the board. The administrators appointed by the church were trained pastors. Gifted with administrative abilities, they also evangelized by holding morning services for patients waiting outside the clinic and Wednesday evening services for hospital staff. This preaching was a point of contention for some MCC workers, offended by subjecting a sick and captive audience to a presentation of the gospel. To express their disagreement, some MCC workers refused to participate in these services. Other MCC staff faithfully attended because it was important as fellow Christians to worship with other Christians, despite differing biblical perspectives.

Some Tin Lanh pastors and leaders expected to receive preferential treatment at their hospital, moving to the head of the waiting line or bypassing the intake nurses to go directly to the doctor. This offended MCC workers’ sense of fairness. When their tolerance gave out, they initiated direct western-style confrontations with the clinic gatekeepers who were caught in the middle between Vietnamese cultural expectations and MCC ideals. This point of contention showed up on the clinic board meeting agenda, providing an opportunity for both sides to explain motivations and cultural imperatives. Resolution was reached when the administrator agreed to put procedures in place to lessen favoritism and MCC staff agreed to be less confrontational, because they better understood the pressure the gatekeepers felt from their church friends. MCC workers also realized their fellow clinic staff deserved the same respect they were trying to gain for patients.

During these war years, MCC workers faced another set of challenges. As a voluntary agency authorized by the South Vietnamese Ministry of Health, MCC automatically received certain privileges, including use of the U.S. military postal system, the right to fly standby on U.S. military planes for free and access to U.S. military bases, their commissaries and their hospitals, among other perks. MCC workers were acutely aware that their actions communicated much to the local community and intentionally considered how to maintain consistency between behavior and belief.

MCC workers in Vietnam were acutely aware that their actions communicated much to the local community and intentionally considered how they might maintain consistency between behavior and belief.

As conscientious objectors to war, we were dedicated to creating an identity separate from the U.S. military. Questions of whether or to what extent to use these privileges provoked many long discussions. Some were easily resolved. For example, when the hospital needed a medication that the Ministry of Health could not provide, a trip was quickly organized to the U.S. military hospital to procure it. Trips to the U.S. commissary for American foodstuffs almost never happened, perhaps because the Vietnamese food on our tables was so delicious. Staying in touch with family and friends back home, meanwhile, was a critical component to our sense of well-being and connectedness. Because the U.S. Army postal service was faster and more reliable than the Vietnamese system, most MCC workers used it.

Other challenges were thornier. Two U.S. military bases were across town from the Nha Trang hospital and their medical personnel were curious about our work: the kind of patients seen, the patients’ medical conditions and the facilities of the hospital. The fact that single young women worked at the clinic was an added attraction. They arrived in their Army jeeps in full uniform and with weapons. Some of them asked how they could help. This launched a vigorous discussion within MCC. U.S. military men and their equipment on the clinic grounds was an incongruous and deeply disturbing sight, threatening to undercut all the times MCC workers had said to the Vietnamese community that they were not part of the military. And yet the U.S. military medical personnel could offer expertise and services that would benefit our patients.

Eventually MCC drew up some ground rules that protected MCC’s principles and stance in the country while allowing U.S. military men to make a contribution. They could visit if they wore civilian clothes, arrived in civilian vehicles and left their weapons at the base. [They were astounded we had no weapons on the clinic grounds.] This practice worked well. One military dentist came out regularly with his equipment to see patients and trained one of the staff to clean and pull teeth; he even got permission to transfer a military dental suite to the clinic so those services could continue. One clinic board meeting revolved around the South Vietnamese flag that flew on the clinic grounds. MCC workers wanted it to be taken down. The Tin Lanh church, in contrast, felt their existence depended on the South Vietnamese government prevailing over the communists. Pastor Huyen, chairman of the board and admired for his patience and wisdom, ended the long and heated discussion, stating: “When and if the North takes over, we will fly their flag, but for now we will fly this flag.”  

This 1975 photo shows, from left, Max Ediger, James Klassen, Earl Martin and Yoshihiro Ichikawa,
MCC volunteers who remained in Saigon during the war in Vietnam. (MCC photo/Earl Martin)

Reflecting from today’s historical vantage point, several things stand out about MCC’s medical work in Vietnam. The one constant was the graciousness shown us by the Vietnamese staff and local community. They welcomed us and invited us into their world, offered us friendship and looked out for us despite our limited language skills and paucity of cultural understanding. Amazingly they did all this although we were citizens from the country that was destroying their land and people. They had the incredible ability to differentiate between us as people and the policies of the U.S. Credit is due to MCC leadership for allowing us to struggle with the issues and having faith that healthy resolutions would be found. The international flavor of MCC workers provided a richness and life-long bonds of friendship. We agree that our time in Vietnam was one of those permanent life markers that changed us in simple and profound ways and all these years later we are still processing our experience.

Lowell Jantzi served as MCC coordinator at The Evangelical Clinic, Nha Trang, South Vietnam, from 1970 to 1973. He later served as MCC representative for Vietnam, together with his spouse, Ruth, from 2003 to 2008.

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Eby, Omar. A House in Hue. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969.

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