Sam James - Missionary Hero

On Thursday, November 6, we had one of the best chapel services I've ever experienced or heard at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

We honored and were blessed by the retired missionary Sam James.

The fact that Sam and his wife Rachel served for 51 years is impressive in and of itself. I dream of being that faithful for so long.

That they served in Vietnam for many of those years, including wartime,  makes the feat even more astounding. James recalled his decision to serve in Vietnam:

I didn’t know any Vietnamese people. I’d never heard the Vietnamese language. . . . It was just something the Lord laid on my heart that I couldn’t get away from. . . . Sometimes I think the call of God is something of a mystery.

When other missionaries were fleeing the war-torn country during the American police action in Vietnam, Sam and Rachel were living in a village in South Vietnam doing missionary work with their kids.

Sam trained pastors. Rachel, a nurse, ran a mobile medical clinic. There was a war going on.

The Vietnam War didn't have a neat border with obvious battle lines. Still, they served at the risk of their lives and the lives of their own children. Sam James tells that he was nearly killed three times during that time. (Audio here) Still, God provided.

Rachel and the kids were evacuated to Thailand in April 1975, the last month of the war. Sam stayed behind to serve refugees. He and his teammates were evacuated only five days prior to the communists over running Saigon.

Sam laughed when he says he probably only wrote thirty-six resignation letters in his fifty-one years of service. He would write the letters, put them in a drawer, and then tear them up the next day. He didn't quit.

Sam served faithfully in several administrative and leadership positions in the IMB, rising to the rank of Vice President. However, in 2002, at the age of 70, Sam asked to be reassigned to Vietnam again.

He had a heart for the Vietnamese and wanted to continue the work of theological education he had started in the years before and during the war. The Vietnamese government would not allow him to live in the country, so he made periodic visits. (Audio: Story of communion at an old zoo)

Eventually, in 2009, Sam was formally recognized as a professor of religion by the Vietnamese government. He is the first foreigner to gain this honor, largely because of his demonstrated faithfulness to the people of Vietnam and his ability to speak the language so well. This appointment allowed him to work regularly with the Vietnamese Baptist Bible Institute, which is a church based seminary. It also led to amazing opportunities, such as an invitation to explain the distinctives of Christianity (i.e., the gospel) in a plenary session at a Buddhist school in Vietnam.

Sam and Rachel didn't officially retire from the IMB until 2013. In the interim, besides their work in Vietnam, they were instrumental in founding and operating the International Mission Board’s training center, the International Learning Center, in Richmond, Virginia. There efforts have resulted in the training of thousands of missionaries and their families.

The story of Sam and Rachel is amazing. It brought tears to my eyes when Sam was interviewed in the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary chapel.  When Danny Akin presented Sam with the Southeastern President's award, the highest award offered by the seminary, it has never seemed more deserved.

In fact, the standing ovations that Sam and Rachel received for their service from the students, staff and faculty of Southeastern were warranted. Such faithfulness and endurance is worthy of the highest praise.

What makes someone serve that faithfully, at such great risk, for so long? An abiding love for God and a desire to faithfully serve no matter what the cost.

Though I’m sure Sam is not perfect, still, faithful service should be celebrated and set as an example for those that will come after.

James spent 51 years of his life serving with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is retired now, but James doesn't like to use the “R” word. As Sam said to the Baptist Press earlier this year:

"'Retire' seems like you're quitting," he says. "But it's not over."


Below is a video of Sam James from 2011 talking about his love for Vietnam:

In 2005, Sam James wrote a book that tells a part of the story of his experience of life as a missionary during the Vietnam war. Click on the link below to see the product page: