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Missionary work a family calling

Four generations called to the mission field; Smith recalls fall of Saigon

The Smith Family in 1972 taken in Vietnam arranged Vietnamese style - oldest to youngest. Stan and Ginny with Ken, Karen, Kathyand Kristen. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Stan Smith, of Brentwood, spent most of his 78 years as a missionary living in exotic and often war-torn foreign lands.

As a child of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Stan and his two older brothers grew up in Vietnam among the isolated, “dark-skinned” tribal people in the jungle Highlands of Vietnam.

Their parents, pioneer missionaries, Gordon and Laura Smith ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the people, built orphanages in the Highlands, and a leprosaria for those with leprosy.

Beginning in the 1950s, 24-year-old Stan, and his new wife Ginny continued the overseas work, providing medical care to heal bodies ravaged by disease.

This young married couple brought food for nourishment when there was little available in the jungle.

The Smiths told stories from the Bible, and as the people became healthy, they wondered about a God so different from the ones they knew.

Stan and Ginny first met as students at Wheaton College, where special scholarships were awarded to children of missionary parents.

“I heard about a new student whose parents were missionaries in Vietnam and Cambodia,” Ginny said. “I knew about the family —his mother had written a number of books.”

As it turned out, the “new student” was in Ginny’s chemistry class.

“My roommate and I flipped a coin and I won,” Stan said, beaming after almost 57 years of marriage. “We dated and we were married in December, 1956 – our senior year of college.”

As a young girl, Ginny heard stories of missionaries. By the time she was 12, “I felt God calling me to mission work. The sense stayed with me.”

With plans to be missionaries, the couple attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for a year, with another eight months at Philadelphia mission called WEC International.

Ginny wanted to be a nurse, but two bouts of rheumatic fever had doctors cautioning her about the stress a nursing career would put on her heart. That caused concern about being a missionary, but when the heart specialist examined Ginny prior to the couple’s first trip, “He determined my heart was okay,” she said.” I got clearance to go. God gave us clearance.” 

In December 1959, the Smiths, both 24, left Los Angeles headed for Saigon and then Da Nang (now Ho Chi Minh City), returning to the area where Stan spent nearly10 years of his childhood.

During the first year, they studied the languages and cultures of Vietnam and Stan was reacquainted with the ever-changing country.

“I knew no Vietnamese,” he said. “As a child it was a French colony so I spoke French and one of the minor languages.”

There are 50.

The next move was to Kon Tum in the Highlands where they studied the tribes, their languages and chose where they would go. They picked Sedang.

“We were the first Protestants to reach this tribe,” Stan recalled. “Vietnamese missionaries worked with us to reach out to other nearby tribes.”

Stationed close by, the American military’s Special Forces, “would give me medicine (for the people)—antibiotics, worming medicine, malaria medicine.”

“We lived in a trailer for 11 months while we built our house in Dak To – a typical Vietnamese house on stilts, Ginny said.

“We took all our wedding gifts there—we were going to be there for life,” she added.

God had other plans. They were in their house just a few months when war forced them out of the area in 1964. Their daughter Karen was six-months old and Ken was two.

“It was starting to get dangerous,” Stan said. “I had to put sandbags on the floor of the car in case we hit a mine.”

The family took a furlough back to the States.

“While we were gone the Communists came and the Vietnamese Army ransacked the house and took everything,” Ginny said. “We lost everything.”

This wasn’t the first time war forced Stan to leave Vietnam.

 “As a child – I was six years old – when the Chinese came into Vietnam,” he said.

That was in 1941. His family returned in 1947 and he stayed until 1950 when he left for college.

“Each time we came home we had to deal with the decision to go back,” Ginny said. “It was the hardest when I was pregnant with Kathy. It was really a time of fear and questioning I couldn’t shake, but God brought me a verse. Through scripture He encouraged me.

After that I knew He was with us. I never thought God withdrew that call [to serve]. There were still so many needs. These Vietnamese were our brothers and sisters. We trusted God to take care of us.”

The Smith family returned to Vietnam in 1965 working in Da Nang for a couple years. A yearning for the Highland people took them back to Kon Tum Province. A year later, a C130 evacuated the family just before the Jan 30, 1968 Tet Offensive was launched.

“We knew we did the right thing (leaving),” Stan said. “A 6mm mortar hit the house – it hit the room our kids were sleeping in.”
During their 15-years in Vietnam, the Smiths built six orphanages, a skin clinic in Da Nang and a leprosaria near the famed China Beach. Stan became a Field Leader and director of Welfare and Relief Services with United World Mission and three of their four children were born there – Ken, Karen and Kathy – the fourth, Kristen, was born in Illinois while the family was on furlough.

On March 30, 1975, a month before the country fell to the Communists, the Smiths left Vietnam after a chaotic, perilous flight from Da Nang to Saigon, each holding orphans that had been thrust into their arms – infants and toddlers who were chosen for adoption.
Ginny and the children got separated from Stan.

“When we got to Saigon, we heard Da Nang had been overrun,” she said.” I didn’t know where my husband was.”

He had been held up and was on another plane.

“We saw what was happening and went to Singapore,” Stan said.

When things calmed down, Stan returned to Saigon to retrieve the organization’s money from a bank.
“I was one of the last missionaries out,” he said, adding he left from the World Vision building next to the U.S. Embassy.

Nine days later on April 30, Saigon fell.

“Even amidst all the chaos of those last days, I remember mom managed to get me a birthday gift on my 11th birthday (March 20),” said Karen Smith Daniel. “It was a snoopy-type cuddly, stuffed dog. And I had a cake. As a child I knew we were saying our goodbyes. We were giving our things away but we could take one suitcase. Mine was packed with Barbies.”

From Singapore the family returned to the States where they worked with Vietnamese refugees in North Carolina for two years before heading to Switzerland to learn French (a refresher course for Stan), then on to Senegal, West Africa where Stan and Ginny remained even after the children all left for college and began their own lives.

“My dad’s goal was to reach the unreached,” Stan said. “We prayed God would use those (Vietnamese) orphans where they were and he did.”

In 1990, the Smiths returned to Vietnam for the first time since 1975. They found that many whom they had taught were teaching others. Some became pastors and started their own missions. Tribal orphans, who learned Vietnamese and read the Bible, teaching tribal kids in their own language.

The seeds Gordon and Laura, Stan and Ginny sowed grew despite being trampled and beaten back and they are reseeding.

Officially, Stan and Ginny retired from missionary work in 2005 and moved to Tennessee to be close to Karen, Greg and their seven children.

They are mentoring and teaching at a start-up church, while enjoying their 15 grandchildren.

Ken lives in Long Island. He married a Vietnamese girl who escaped with other refugees, known by Americans as the “Boat People” Kathy and her husband Ronnie have been missionaries for 21 years in Senegal. They now live in South Africa. Both of their children attend Wheaton College, a favored institution by the family.

Kristen married a “missionary kid” from South Africa. They are missionaries in Spain.

Posted on: 8/14/2013


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