Last night Janet and I watched a recording of a recent World Vision weekly chapel service. It started with a faded documentary-style video, circa 1979, chronicling a dramatic moment when World Vision’s ship Seasweep rescued a floundering vessel crammed with Vietnamese boat people. One four-year-old boy who was on that boat that day …then stood up and spoke to the chapel crowd! Now in his mid-30’s, Vinh is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and a skin cancer surgeon in Colorado. He said, “Without a doubt, if it had it not been for World Vision, the story of my life would have ended anonymously at the age of 4 in the South China Sea.”
Vinh’s parents had 11 children (he has only three of his own, thank you very much), and of the 11, five have Masters’ degrees and five have doctorates. The youngest recently graduated from Stanford and is on his way to medical school at Penn. Dad worked every hour he could as a laborer for a company that manufactures air conditioners, though the plant was not air conditioned and he stood all day on the assembly line through Arkansas summers. As Vinh told the audience, thanks to his father’s commitment, today he and his siblings all sit in offices, make their living based on their minds, and work in air conditioned facilities.
All in one generation. It’s a great illustration of the incredible opportunity possible in America—with sufficient parental sacrifice, a strong work ethic cascading down to the children, (yes, let’s acknowledge serious IQs and study habits!) …and the kindness of others, especially the amazing church which sponsored them from the refugee camp, helped them into an apartment, likely found the father a job, and told them all about Jesus.
World Vision played but one tiny, yet also decisive, role…saving the lives of 93 people that fateful day caught on film, including this entire family. What an amazing privilege for our staff to hear “the rest of the story” from Vinh and to have played a small yet critical role in it.
Somewhere in here is a lesson on gratitude. Vinh was thanking “people I will never meet”: not only the World Vision staff, but also the donors who supported this risky, reckless and costly venture. WV put a ship on the South China Sea to resupply Vietnamese refugee boats at a time when no governments wanted to get involved. Then the crew superseded the rules of the ship’s registration by following the law of their conscience, dramatically hoisting these 93 people aboard the Seasweep when their refugee boat was irreparable and had been floundering helplessly for six days, now out of food. Vinh’s mother was so beside herself at being unable to meet her children’s needs that “she would have given her blood” to nourish them; she has since admitted that she considered drowning the youngest ones to save them an agonizingly slow death. Such was the desperation of their situation when Seasweep found them.
How do we—you and I—get the privilege of being part of stories like this, and of literally millions more we’ll never hear this side of eternity? Rich Stearns went up to the podium to close chapel after Vinh sat down, and he became emotional. He wondered if maybe this is what the entertainment will be in heaven, hearing such testimonies.
In the meantime, it’s a huge blessing to savor the representative gratitude of one young father, husband, doctor, and son. He was on his way to becoming a statistic, simply a rounding error to add to the estimated three hundred thousand souls who had by then already been lost at sea as Vietnamese boat people.
Often, this is what life is like. We do our one part, we respond to an inner prompting of the heart and provide a helping hand—a touch, a word, a gift, and we have no idea how the story of that life ends. We never learn the rest of the story. Granted, the story isn’t usually as dramatic as Vinh’s—certainly my own story is not, though someone I’ll never meet provided the scholarship which allowed me to finish college summa cum laude and land a great corporate job that fed my young family and gave me skills and clarity of purpose which I employ every day.
This Thanksgiving, it’s worth taking time to go beyond the more obvious and visible objects of my gratitude—family, friends, my life today—and remember those unknown people who helped me along my way, maybe even without knowing me, to have the life I enjoy now.
And perhaps I’ll even take a moment to thank God for those people like Vinh, those I’ve personally or vicariously been able to somehow touch, bless, and strengthen on their journey, often without even knowing them. The apostle Paul encourages us, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9)
Giving thanks isn’t just a way to honor God by recalling our own life’s blessings, but also an opportunity to encourage ourselves by recalling the privilege God has given us of helping others in our own outpourings of time, talent and treasure. And what a great way to not grow weary in doing good!
Who knows—maybe a long ago passerby or someone you or I haven’t even met, like Vinh, will be thanking God this week for a decisive impact in their life in which we had a hand.
Understanding that, Vinh’s story is a Thanksgiving gift to us all.