BY KEN LITTLE
To Americans of a certain age, mentioning the city of Hanoi brings very specific images to mind. Many Americans remember images of Hanoi from Vietnam War-era film and photographs.
But members of First Baptist Church Greeneville who recently visited the Vietnamese city were looking to the future.
For Jeff Sowers, a Greeneville police officer and a member of the church congregation, the mission trip was an unforgettable experience.
"It was just a very positive feeling. I felt very blessed about going," Sowers said. "You get these feelings about a Communist country (like) they are destitute.
"There was a lot of poverty, but the people there, even though they were Communists, they love their country."
SPREADING THE WORD
The four church members who went on the trip from Sept. 28 through Oct. 7 were part of a tour group organized by e3 Partners, an evangelical ministry committed to spreading the Word of God "by establishing His church" in places where Christianity is not openly discussed.
The Greeneville contingent was part of a 13-member tour group. In addition to Sowers, church Associate Pastor Joey Tillery, Anthony Foister and Gordon Williams went on the trip.
They met and spoke exclusively with students at universities in Hanoi. All were young adults.
"We would just strike up conversations with students there, and they were very excited to talk with us. They were just practicing their English," Sowers said.
Members of the tour group had a specific message they were trying to communicate.
"We would just tell them a story," Sowers said. "It is legal to be a Christian. It is legal to tell them your personal testimony. It is illegal to evangelize."
The students were asked first if they minded hearing a story.
'PLAN OF SALVATION'
The story was designed to "show the plan of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ," Sowers said. "Most of them understood English. There were different levels of competency."
The students were proud of their country, "and they like telling other people about it," he said.
The message that Sowers and others in the tour group were trying to convey hit home with many of the students, he said.
There were 352 "presentations" by individual visitors, and 77 students "prayed to receive Christ and accept the Gospel," Sowers said.
Some of the Vietnamese interpreters who accompanied the group were Christian, Sowers said.
"Every day they would say, 'Let's talk to more people. Let's try to explain Jesus to more people," he said. "After we left, it was their job to (carry on)."
Sowers asked some of the Vietnamese Christians if they were uneasy about making their beliefs known.
"I can do all things through Christ," one woman told Sowers, quoting the New Testament Letter of Paul to the early Christian church at Philippi.
"They were just so excited to tell people about it," he said.
Still, when the group was at the university, members were limited in what they could say.
'A BUSTLING CITY'
What Sowers and other members of the tour group saw in Hanoi was was vastly different from the memories many have of the city from Vietnam War-era photographs.
"It was just a bustling city, probably the size of Knoxville," said Sowers, an eight-year veteran of the Greeneville police force.
"There were a lot of foreign people there just to visit," he said. "They [the Vietnamese] were definitely trying to appeal to Western civilization because they know where the money is at."
Reminders of the past were not completely absent, Sowers said. Pictures and portraits of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Mihn "were all over the place," he said.
But the majority of the people the tour group saw were too young to have first-hand knowledge of the Vietnam conflict.
"I felt welcome. I even mentioned [the war] to one of the ladies I was talking to," he said.
"She said the war was over. It's been over for 40 years. I didn't feel any ill will towards us at all."
Sowers won't soon forget the trip.
"It was phenomenal. It was life-changing," he said.