Baptist work in Vietnam hits close to home for Oklahoma pastor

PONCA CITY, Okla. (BP) -- As French McLemore rode through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, the last thing he expected to see was a sign for a Baptist church.

Born in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it was once known, McLemore and his family lived there until two days before the fall of Saigon in 1975. McLemore's Vietnamese mother met his father, a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, while his father served in Vietnam as a civilian contractor.

Today McLemore is the associate pastor of First Baptist Church, Ponca City, Okla. Not forgetting his heritage and initial homeland and sensing God's direction to invest in the work taking place overseas, McLemore and his mother, along with a team from his church, visited Ho Chi Mihn City in 2013. It was their first visit since McLemore and his mother left in 1975.

"I was taken back by the flood of memories as I stepped out of the airport and breathed in the fresh air," said McLemore. "I can only describe it as everything I remember from my childhood."

However, McLemore's childhood memories of Saigon did not include Grace Baptist Church. Founded in 1962 while IMB worker Sam James served in Saigon, the church has prevailed against the test of time, war and countless trials.

McLemore was surprised to see the Baptist church. He merely assumed the church was a "remnant of a bygone era." When he returned from his trip, he immediately searched for the church online and soon discovered Grace Baptist Church wasn't a piece of the past preserved, but a living, thriving testimony to God's goodness in times of trial.

Single survivor

Sam James also had to leave Saigon during the Vietnam War. After living in the country for 17 years, James reluctantly left because of the Communist control over the city. During the Communist reign, all of the Baptist churches in Vietnam were shut down or disbanded.

All but one.

By God's grace, Grace Baptist Church of Saigon remained open throughout what James calls the "dark times" and celebrated its 60-year anniversary this year. Before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Grace Baptist shared a space with a church of a different denomination. Thanks to a Lottie Moon Christmas Offering grant of $50,000, the church members were able to secure property and a building for the church and establish their independence, financially and congregationally.

James explained in a podcast interview, "Back in 1970 when people gave to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, they had no idea that some of that offering would be used to buy the land and the building for Grace Baptist Church and then what would happen as a result of that church being in that place that has impacted the whole country for the Lord. They had no way of knowing that and yet they gave. I just praise the Lord for that."

Long-awaited meeting

When McLemore searched for Grace Baptist Church online back in 2013, he discovered the role James played in the church's history and in Baptist work in Vietnam. After reading James' book, "Servant on the Edge of History," McLemore knew he had to meet James.

Since his initial trip back to Vietnam in 2013, McLemore's church has sent teams to Vietnam four times. McLemore has formed a friendship with the Vietnamese pastor of Grace Baptist Church. The two men are the same age, and McLemore marvels at the different paths the Lord had for each of their lives.

McLemore's church is sending another team to Vietnam in 2020. He asked James to come speak last November to kick off the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and to cast the vision for their 2020 trip.

"Sam did an incredible job in sharing about the work of the International Mission Board and the work that is going on all over the world," McLemore said. "I cannot say enough about Sam's passion and humility to serve our Lord and to make Him known to all people groups. I am truly blessed to have met him and am thankful for his faithfulness."

The work of one IMB missionary has left an impact reaching beyond the limits of Ho Chi Minh City and has inspired a friendship between a Baptist church in Oklahoma and one on the other side of the world.

Catherine Finch is a writer for IMB.
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