12 Witnesses

Let these stones be a witness to what we have done here this day.

Vietnam 2010: Hot Pot


As an act of gratitude, the staff of San Sa Ho school wanted to take us out for a special meal, for which they paid.  It was a local practice called Hot Pot.  This was an important step for all of us, because it was a tremendous offer of hospitality on their part and to refuse would have been just as tremendous an insult on our part.

On the other hand, to accept would deepen the bonds of friendship and give us more opportunity to grow in our understanding of one another.

So the choice was obvious if uncomfortable: We were going for Hot Pot.

To my mind, the phrase “Hot Pot” conjured the street vendors in Hanoi who cooked pungent foods with rickety equipment that looked like it had been cleaned sometime last decade.  In my imagination, each pot had an odd meat or other food that we would sample from.

I was pretty close in my initial estimation, and yet the reality far surpassed my mind’s eye.

We were led through town to what appeared to be a house no longer lived in, but in fairly good repair.  We climbed the steps to a larger room where we found 4 tables set with 8 chairs around each.  Each place was set with chopsticks and bowls, the traditional method of eating in Vietnam.  We spread out among the tables and the school staff did the same.

Jerry, David and I sat at one table in the far corner of the room, as did Sherman, the country director of GVI.  Ken and DeAnn sat together at another table while Selena and Emily sat at the other two tables.

The Headmaster (Principal) sat with us as did the Foreman of the paving job we had been working on.

When we sat down, many of the foods were already on the table.  There was raw beef, finely chopped, raw chicken with the skin coarsely chopped, some unknown meat with large and small orange spheres, a plate of boiled and peeled quail eggs, a bowl of tofu, a bowl of tomatoes, a row of prawns and a bowl of various greens.  A little later, someone brought a plate of salmon.

In the middle of the table was the Hot Pot:  a large bowl of broth on a butane burner in which was already cooking some tofu and tomatoes.  The concept of Hot Pot became apparent.  It was like a shrimp boil, where you put different ingredients in the same pot and ate what you preferred.

My initial thought was that this was uncomfortable, but survivable. Until someone set a bowl of Vit Lo (I’m guessing on the spelling) at David’s elbow.  It looked like eggs, but there was something more to it.  More texture.  Jerry recognized them first and it was later confirmed that they were unhatched duck embryos.

I glanced sidelong at Sherman with a half smile and said, “If one of those goes in the pot, I’m done.”  He chuckled and David refused to look anywhere near the Vit Lo.

When we started eating someone dumped the whole plate of chicken into the pot.  I told them I would like to try the beef, so the Headmaster picked up some beef and put it in what appeared to be a wide flat ladle with holes in the bottom.  He set the spoon in the middle of the pot and it cooked there for a few minutes.  He then raised the spoon out of the broth and beef was cooked through.  Jerry and I both tried some and I thought it was pretty good.

Just about the time we were getting comfortable, the job foreman scooped up the Vit Lo and dumped the entire bowl into the pot.

We all watched in stunned silence as they plopped into the mix.  Sherman tried to stop him, but it happened so quickly that it was done before anyone could do anything.  The foreman looked at Sherman inquisitively as he set the bowl back down and Sherman explained that we weren’t used to that.

The foreman asked what we were used to.  Good question.  The honest answer, was “nothing in this room.”

I don’t know what Sherman said in answer.

After a while, I did eat some salmon and quail eggs after the Vit Lo were in the pot.  I looked over at David after eating the quail egg and he had this odd look on his face.  I asked him, “You’re proud of me, aren’t you?”  To which he replied, “Yes, indeed, I am very proud of you.” He said this in a way that made me feel that he was both proud and a little repulsed.

Later, the Superintendent of all the schools in the region dropped in to meet us all and toast us.

However uncomfortable we were, being there did more for our relationships and future work than anything else we have done or could do.

Throughout the night, the words of Paul ran through my mind, “I have become all things to all men that I might win some.”

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  • Published: Mar 17th, 2010
  • Category: Vietnam
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Vietnam 2010: Interlude


Sorry for the delay in updates.  Sickness swept through our team 2 days ago, starting with Selena and rapidly settling on David, myself and then DeAnn.

You never know what exactly causes this stuff, but that doesn’t stop you from speculating.  Hot Pot got the blame from DeAnn, but I’m not convinced.

Regardless, I was in no condition yesterday to attempt to describe the culinary diversity that was Hot Pot.

That story is up next.

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  • Published: Mar 15th, 2010
  • Category: Vietnam
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Vietnam 2010: San Sa Ho – Hard Labor

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On Monday, after arriving at the hotel and dropping off our luggage, we set out for San Sa Ho school.

It was important for us to get to the site to renew relationships we had established last year when we installed computers for them.

The leaders and some of the teachers there remembered some of us from a cold night of coffee and conversation last year. They wanted to take us drinking last year, but we tried to explain that drunkenness is against our faith. They took that at our word, but seemed skeptical.

We were thrilled to find that the computers we had installed were still working well and that they had opened great doors. The educators were able to mass produce tests and homework whereas before they had to write every sheet by hand. Also they kept up with grades and organized other things with the office software we installed.

Most importantly, the students were able to see and work on a computer and have practical experience using software. Prior to this, they were shown pictures of keyboards, screens and disks. Explanation was then given as to what these pictures were, how they worked and why. Obviously, pictures of computers and moving a mouse are drastic quality of education improvements.

After the welcome ceremony where introductions and re-introductions were made, we got to work helping to lay down concrete. The workers were finishing the courtyard and after lunch we helped them with the road from the “main” road to the school. There isn’t really anything “main” or “primary” about that road, since where we are is a very rural place.

The road that we are now paving is a dirt road that gets very muddy in the rain and concreting it will be a great improvement for them. It is also uphill.

We weren’t trusted to mix or spread the concrete. I suppose that’s considered skilled labor. Our job was to haul sand, rocks and bags of concrete to the top of the hill. All afternoon long. This is what we will do all week.

That would be frustrating as well as exhausting, but the gratitude expressed to us for our partnership makes it all worth while. This is not a “good” assignment for the teachers or staff, but our partnership has increased the quality of education tremendously and the moral has gone through the roof. We are constantly being engaged in conversation and they are helping us do dirty work in their nice clothes. The appreciation is evident everywhere.

We are taking the UV Filtration system out today, but someone else will likely install it as it is complex. It will be the first clean drinking water the children raised in this community will ever have had.

As a token of our thanks, the staff wanted to take us out to celebrate again. They wanted to take us to “Hot Pot” and if that seems scary to those reading back home, let me assure you that it is more so here.

Let me also affirm that it lived up to its expectations. That story next.

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  • Published: Mar 15th, 2010
  • Category: Vietnam
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Vietnam 2010: The Travel


In previous years we’ve flown from Tulsa to DFW to California to Taipei to Hanoi in our humanitarian aid efforts.  This year we saved both money and time by flying from Tulsa to Chicago to Seoul to Hanoi.  We cut out a flight and a layover which decreased our overall travel time from about 36 to just under 30 hours.  It also cut our costs by about $300 per person.

After arriving in Hanoi about 10:00 pm on Saturday evening (9:00 am Saturday morning in Tulsa), we had to pick up our visas on arrival at a special desk.  Typically, we would have had our visas already, but the Tet celebration in Asia bogged down the process and resulted in our heading for the “Visas on Arrival” desk.

I think that this procedure is typically smoother than it was for us, but a group from a country in western Europe was in front of us and had bogged everything down.  They couldn’t communicate with the officials and weren’t being very cooperative so everyone paid the price.

Finally we received our visas, passed through immigration, tracked down our luggage on the other side of the airport and walked through an empty customs desk.  Our good friend Tim delivered us to the Bao Kahn hotel in Hanoi just after midnight.

You might say that we were exhausted and if you did say that, you would be right.  Sleeping on planes is difficult and sleeping in beds is a welcome respite.

We were boarding the night train to Lao Cai/Sapa/San Sa Ho that night so we had the day to kick around the Hoa Kiem Lake area – a popular place for tourists and locals alike.  We met up with one of our interpreters from last year, Long, who was excited to see us and we felt the same way.

We took some pictures, ate at a couple of local restaurants, Jerry and I got moderately lost and found our way back again.  We avoided fruit from the street vendors.

We got foot massages.  All of us.  No, check that.  Selena went for the full body massage.

At 8:00 pm we gathered in the hotel and headed for the night train.  I’m writing this on my bunk at 4:00 am with jet lag having woken me up in the middle of the night.  When we arrive, we will clean up and then head to San Sa Ho to begin our preparation.  

It is very important to them to have a formal meeting with us when we arrive and we can, hopefully, get this done today so we can start work right away tomorrow morning.  We also hope to organize this afternoon toward that same end.

Vietnam Updates


I’ll be posting links to all the latest Vietnam updates on the Vietnam page.  Because the internet is so sporadic where we are working, I will upload several articles at a time when it is available and my schedule allows.

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  • Published: Mar 15th, 2010
  • Category: Vietnam
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Vietnam 2010: The Project


A group of seven people from Skelly Drive in Tulsa are headed for San Sa Ho in Lao Cai Province.  In last year’s trip, San Sa Ho was one of several places we stopped to work.  While there, we installed a “computer lab,” consisting of 2 networked computers and a printer that Skelly Drive had purchased.

When last year’s group returned and reported first to Skelly and then to our Engagement Administration Team, the consensus was that San Sa Ho should be the primary focus of our efforts in Vietnam for the future.  In the past, we’ve split time between Hanoi and the Sapa areas and last year participated in numerous projects in those areas.  These included working with orphanages and teaching at the Hanoi University of Education in Hanoi, and installing computer labs at a couple of sites around Sapa.

It was our evaluation that, while our impact had been broad, it had also been shallow.  What impact we had was small for each area and there was no follow up.  It came to our minds that good engagement practice would be to focus our efforts on one context and develop the quality of life and relationships there with larger projects and effort.

This year, Skelly has raised money to provide clean drinking water by purchasing a UV filtration system for the San Sa Ho community.  We have also raised enough money to pave the courtyard of the school.  A concrete courtyard will dramatically increase the hygiene for those attending and working at the school.  We’ve raised some additional funds that can be distributed later toward nutrition programs and clothing/blankets as we direct.

The majority of our week will be hand mixing the concrete on the ground, spreading and smoothing it during the day.  Smarter people than us will install the filtration system.  We will also check in on the computers we installed last year to see that all is functioning well there.

We are hoping to begin a long term relationship with the Black Hmong people group that lives in the San Sa Ho area and improve their quality of life tremendously over the next several years.

Vietnam 2009: Lessons Learned

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I intend for this to be the last post specifically on the trip from March 2009.  If you haven’t seen all of the posts and pics, you can find them listed on the Vietnam page.

Really good lessons learned that will shape us over the next decade as we continue to engage those who the Lord has set before us.  Some simple.  Some profound.

Book your own travel.  9 hour layovers happen when the travel agent makes sure you run through the airline that gets her the best kick back.

Get in shape.  For so many reasons, being unhealthy runs counter to spread of the Gospel.  People don’t respect obesity around the world.  Obesity hurts your ability to do very strenuous things, like travel the globe and hike up a mountain in North Vietnam to examine a water source and filtration system.  By God’s grace, I had made a shift prior to my attempt at the latter this year, but that stands in stark contrast to my experience last year.

Tighten your focus.  We did many things this year and all of them were good.  there was nothing that was not worthy of our time and attention.  Nevertheless, our goal necessitates building relationships and jumping from one project to another keeps us from giving the time that is necessary for us to do that.  As a result, good things will have to go so that the best things flourish.

The church is the missionary.  I am the church.  The denominationalism that spread throughout America has created a sense of laziness among our church members.  One of the many reasons that churches across America are dying is that they are not engaged beyond sending a dose of money for someone else to do the hard work.  Supporting people remaining on the ground is a good thing.  Going there yourself is also good, and a much more healthy thing for the individual and the collective.  Both are necessary.

Vietnam 2009: Reintegration

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I’m in the San Francisco airport and I’m noticing so many different attitudes – in those around us and (most disturbingly) in myself.

While moving through security, a man wanted past one of our teens and cursed them under his breath as he went by.  This may have happened in Vietnam, but mostly everyone just made their way through and around everyone else.  Jimmy overheard the guy and asked him, “Kinda grumpy arencha?”  The man never paused or turned.

The flip side is the selfishness that I’ve found myself experiencing.  We’ve got a really bad layout for our flight schedule.  Our travel agent is based in Dallas/Ft. Worth and so she routed us through there, even though we asked to be routed through Denver (direct flights to Tulsa) which would have dropped a leg off our journey, presumably saving us money and TIME.

While in Vietnam, I was frequently asked to adjust schedules and do things to accomodate others and it was no problem.  My mindset was that I was there to serve and I was happy to do so.

Now I’m in San Francisco and the desire to serve has been replaced by the desire to be served.  My aggravation over the travel plans is cumbersome.

It’s not that I should accept the situation passively and without question.  We hired her to do a job and she didn’t do it as well as she could have, so we are going to look elsewhere for better performance.  That’s not wrong.

My consternation with my own attitude stems from the reality that I sense a sinful and selfish attitude within.  There’s a difference in wanting more for my money and having some sense of entitlement that reveals my wicked heart.

How is it that I can turn off and on the desire to serve?  What makes me think that there are times to serve and times when I am to be served?  I’m grateful that Jesus did not demand to be served at all times He was worthy of it, but yielded His rights and poured Himself out as a servant.  From His service to the Father, I am redeemed.

I have such a long way to go.

Vietnam 2009: Favorite Things

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I’m sitting in a taxi, in rush hour Hanoi traffic on Wednesday afternoon heading home from Bonnie’s first day of teaching at the University.  The windows are down and we are in a tangle of traffic heading in every conceivable direction.  Most of them are scooters.  Some of them are cars, probably taxis.  A few of them are busses.  All of them are honking.  None of them are moving.

I love it.

At home, this drives me nuts, but here I relish it.  It reminds me that I am where I am and why I am here.

So, as I relished that moment, it occurred to me to share with you a few of my favorite things from this trip and from Vietnam.

“I wish they understood me better.  They would love me.” – said by my wife in regards to the language barrier as she taught at the University.

Walking down a side street in Hanoi with 13 year old Casey Strong and discussing how he was experiencing something that none of his friends had ever come close to, and probably would never get to do.

Learning the complex intricacies of engagement from the Forefront Church team and being awed by their servant nature.  Being grateful for brothers and sisters whose service had opened doors for us so that we reaped the fruits of their labor.

Being reminded of the material blessings I enjoy in comparison to those in real need.  Realizing that those material blessings can be a curse in a million different ways.

Taking a team half full of teenagers – our young leaders – to a completely new place and experience.  Helping them to experience service and, hopefully, learn to be a new person.

Forming new relationships and learning from my Vietnamese friends.

Making a real difference in the lives of children in a remote part of the world.

Being generous to college students who are hungry for more than just western food: We  gave them pizza, conversation, friendship, education, respect and more.

Sacrificing for the privilege of serving.  It conforms my wicked heart into the shape of my Lord.

Let’s be honest.  Foot massages.  I’m completely addicted.  I won’t pay $35 at home for the exact same thing, but while here I will readily give up $6 for an hour of relaxing physical manipulation.  I’ve corrupted my wife and Casey Strong, but Jimmy and Denna Strong resist with a convincing resolve.

Using chopsticks.  My friends say I’m a natural, but I need more practice.

Living the Gospel. Having my heart broken.  Being uncomfortable.  Serving God across the world with my wife. Speaking eternal truth without the driving need to count the person opposite.  Watching God at work.  Being awed that He would use a completely flawed person like myself.

Just a couple of pics of Hanoi scooter traffic from the back of my taxi.  You can see more of them at flickr or my photoblog.

Click on a thumbnail for a bigger picture.

Vietnam 2009: The Visiting Professor

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GVI has had a long standing relationship with the HUE (Hanoi University of Education – or University of Hanoi).  GVI has made real inroads through the Department of Special Education by bringing in experts in dealing with the issue of Autism, which is very important to the Vietnamese government and Ministry of Education.

As a result, this was a gateway for Bonnie, who has a BA in Mathematics Education and a MA in Education Administration and is currently serving as a Curriculum Resource Instructor for Math and Science – helping math and science teachers to teach better.  The Department of Special Education invited all education students to a two day seminar on the subject of Differentiation in Education.

I went along for moral and technical support – which is a good thing, I suppose, since I had to handle a lot of technical issues for her without asking for assistance through a language barrier.

She also loved it when I called her “Professor.”

That’s a joke.  She was very nervous and I almost got in trouble because I kept doing it.

The truth is, she is a phenomenal educator and has forgotten more about education theory and practice than most teachers will ever know.

The big upside is the relationships she is building with the students.  She passed out business cards to all the students with her email address and asked them all to feel free to communicate with her in the future.  Her sense of humor and desire to have fun is contagious, even with the language barriers and the students love her.

Best quote:  “I just wish they understood me.  They would love me.”

I think they already love us, but that may have something to do with the fact that we bought them all pizza.  They had never had it before and most of them really loved it.  They wanted to know where to get it – which is fascinating, because it is everywhere in Hanoi.

It also gave me the opportunity to have conversations on America and the west.  I have to tell you that it was very revealing to me about how they perceived us.  We studied different aspects of America in practicing some teaching styles and I was available to answer questions about America – which is where their perceptions really came out.

Most revealing question:  “How do you feel about America since it recently presented a ‘Strong Face’ to the world, but since the economy has fallen, America’s ‘face’ in weaker or diminished.”

Here are my pics.  You can see more of them at flickr or my photoblog.

Click on a thumbnail for a bigger picture.

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