A Vietnamese Orphan, an American Serviceman, and God's Amazing Plan
In 1971, John Cope completed an 18-month tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force in the Delta region of South Vietnam. He had enlisted in the service because he felt he owed something to his country. But arriving ack in the States, he couldn’t forget the faces of the children he had seen in Vietnam—or remove them from his heart. He wanted to return to Vietnam, not as a soldier, but “to do the Lord’s work,” he said. He was 23 years old, single, with no college. He would not qualify for appointment with his denomination’s mission sending board, and few people gave him any encouragement to follow his dream. But he learned that a Vietnamese orphanage was located near the American bases at Cam Ranh Bay, and he thought that perhaps he could serve there. The orphanage director agreed that John could come and work for one year. He would, of course, have to pay his own way, and as a guarantee, show that he had money enough to sustain himself for a whole year. But money was no problem for the frugal Oklahoman; John had savings, so he was on his way!
Few people could have done what John did. Though he spoke no Vietnamese, he lived with the orphans who spoke little English, slept in their crowded dorm, and ate what they ate—sometimes a sparse bowl of rice with watercress, and fresh bread on Sundays. Most of all, he loved the orphans and staff with genuine Christian love. While the children were in school, John did any task that needed doing. In jeans and rubber thong sandals, he worked in the fields, planted crops, fed the pigs, and drove the Volkswagen van, hauling children wherever they needed to go—to church on Sunday or to the doctor when they were sick. Occasionally, John used his culinary skills to delight the children with fried apple fritters made from military-issue dehydrated apples.
From the time John arrived, one little boy named Thang latched on to him, trailing him wherever he went. John would often scoop him up into a bear hug with Thang chattering in Vietnamese and John responding in English. By the time Thang turned five, he knew he was special in John’s eyes.
In 1973, after 14 months at the orphanage, John had to say goodbye to the orphans and return to the States. His departure left a vacant place in the lives and hearts of all the children. The ties of love had grown deep, and the children missed him. The personnel who ran the orphanage missed John’s hard work and helping hand. And for John, thoughts and concern for the orphans followed him to America. He prayed that God willing—somehow, someday—he would be reunited with the little boy Thang.
In early 1975, South Vietnam began to fall apart. The Vietnamese staff responsible for the orphans and orphanage were aware of the danger for the children. As the security broke down and the country faced falling into the hands of the Communists, the orphanage director, Nguyen Xuan Ha, along with others who worked with him, began to make plans for the children to escape. In May, by God’s great mercies, 82 orphans and 15 staff members from the Cam Ranh City Christian Orphanage arrived at the refugee resettlement center in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
Upon learning that his beloved orphans would be processed as refugees at Fort Chaffee, John, who lived less than 100 miles away, arrived at the center just as the orphans were loading onto buses to go to the hospital for vaccinations. In unbelief, the children poured off the buses, shrieking with joy at seeing him. In the rush of children and hugs, John realized that someone was hanging on to his back pocket. Thang had made his way through the mob of older children to get to John. It was a moment John says he will never forget!
Brother John, as they called him, was a humble presence, providing love and security which the children and administrators so very much needed at this critical point in their journey to a new life. John had been part of the orphan family in Vietnam, and now he was here to help them transition to life in America. Within a couple of months, the entire orphanage—children and staff—were settled into their new home. God had graciously provided a place for them at Buckner Baptist Children’s Home in Dallas, Texas. Buckner had just completely renovated a dormitory large enough to house all the new arrivals, and they welcomed the Vietnamese children with open arms! John, understanding the role he could play in the children’s lives, gave notice at his job in Arkansas and moved to Dallas. He took a job as cook in the Buckner kitchen, where he tried to blend familiar rice dishes with the American staples—hamburgers and macaroni and cheese.
For two years, Buckner kept the children together, allowing them to soak up American customs, before permitting—especially the younger children—to be adopted by American families. Many of the older children lived at the Home until they graduated from high school. From the beginning, John’s heart was set on adopting Thang, but his singleness presented a problem. But, again, John was persistent, and his love paid off. The trustees at Buckner and social workers in Oklahoma, aware of John’s devotion to all the orphans, finally endorsed the adoption. In November 1978, John (age 30) and Thang (age 8) became father and son. John moved back to his hometown in Oklahoma into a house just down the street from his parents; and John’s mother, Billie, filled the role of Mom.
When Thang was a senior in high school, John met a wonderful woman named Anna, and they were married, eventually having two beautiful daughters. Thang went on to complete his education at Oklahoma State University, getting a degree in agronomy and completing seminary training at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
In 2010, John and Thang returned to Vietnam for the first time. John and Anna and their two girls, and Thang with his wife and two daughters, joined a group of orphans to visit the sight of their former orphanage and bring gifts to children in two Vietnamese orphanages. On this trip, by a true miracle of God, they were able to locate Thang’s birth mother, who was living at a Catholic convent in Central Vietnam. Speaking through an interpreter, the mother’s repressed grief poured out as she gently pulled a worn child’s sweater from a basket and pressed it into Thang’s hands. It was the only vestige she had saved of the small child she had surrendered to the orphanage 35 years earlier. She explained that on the day she left Thang at the orphanage, he was cold, but she had to save something to remember him by! Seeing the expression in his mother’s eyes, Thang—after a lifetime of mixed emotions—now understood the depth of love that had caused his mother to give him up at age four.
John says, “It was all part of God’s plan—in some way, for some reason. From the time I went into the service until now, everything has happened as God planned.” Most of all, John believes that God is “A father to the fatherless…and sets the lonely in families...” (Psalm 68:5,6).
The love for the Vietnamese people that compelled John to return to Vietnam has made an eternal difference in the lives of the orphan family. John seldom misses an event where the orphans are together. He has traveled from the east coast to the west coast attending weddings and funerals of his beloved orphan family.
Today, Thang says that unless he sits down and thinks, “I’m Vietnamese,” he doesn’t consider himself anything but American. Then he adds, “But I am grateful for my Vietnamese roots.”
Each one of us is shaped by the way we view and respond to people whom God places in our way. John was one American serviceman who responded to the Vietnamese with love and servanthood. Many of the orphan children whose lives he touched went on to become engineers, computer programmers, insurance agents, bankers, and teachers. And a number have also gone into mission work, serving the Lord in different places in our world. The success the orphans achieved in their new land is a legacy of their native land. Even amid the horrors of war, God had a plan—and His plans are always amazing!