Many of us hope that we’ll someday have an opportunity to see what kind of impact we made during our lifetime. Many of us figure that we’ll just have to wait until we stand before our Maker.
But International Mission Board (IMB) missionary Sam James is getting some confirmation of his kingdom impact from an unexpected source: the granddaughter of a “favorite son” from his mission work in Vietnam.
It’s not that Sam James, a native of North Carolina and graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), has not already received honor for his 50 years of tireless work in East Asia. A building is named after him at the IMB Missionary Learning Center he helped design. And when SEBTS students are assigned reports on revered missionaries, Sam James’ name is included in the list along with William Carey, Jim Elliot and Lottie Moon.
But for Annie Le, Pastor James is as precious as a grandfather. Growing up at Grace Baptist Church in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, she never recalls a time when “Sam James” — Le always uses both names as if they are one — was not around.
Le grew up hearing stories about how James pastored Grace Baptist, the first Baptist church plant in Vietnam. He nurtured and befriended her grandfather, Le Quoc Chanh, who had converted to Christianity as a young man and was the first Baptist convert in that country. When Quoc Chanh said he wanted to be a pastor in 1964, the Vietnam Baptist Mission asked James to begin theological education. His first class had seven students.
In 1970, James recommended the church call a Vietnamese pastor. Le’s grandfather was called. And when her grandfather retired in 2010, her father, Le Quoc Huy, took over.
“He taught my grandpa. He also taught my dad. So I grew up having him there in my life,” Le said.
She has fond memories of James preaching and teaching in Vietnamese and how thoughtful he was as he quietly inquired from each person about a sick relative or some other personal concern he always remembered. She recalls how committed James was to her community and how he refused to leave even during the worst of the Vietnam war, until he was finally forced to.
In 1975, after the Fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), “everything changed.” It was more difficult for James to be in Vietnam full-time. But he always returned or sent other teachers to help educate a cadre of young pastors.
Once Le graduated from high school, she was invited to attend The College at Southeastern on a scholarship facilitated by one of the many professors James had sent into Vietnam to teach. Le gladly accepted and headed off to college in Wake Forest, N.C. — leaving Vietnam for the first time.
“He helped start my church, and now I’m here through his ministry,” she said.
When Le arrived at Southeastern, she marveled at the beauty of the campus and the devotion of the students. She had never before studied the Bible so deeply, and she found herself being drawn closer to God the more she studied. Although she considers it a privilege to have known God as a child and been raised in the church, she found that she was inspired by being a part of a community of students who sought after God and took such delight in it.
Once Le got settled into life at Southeastern, she arranged a visit with James, now retired and living with his wife in Virginia. In his 80s, she found him just as she remembered: humble, kind and full of life. He took her to lunch at the IMB headquarters, and Le began to discover that James was somewhat of an icon, a beloved figure who inspires future missionaries with his selfless service over so many years.
Le is now pursuing a master’s degree in counseling. Many people, including James, have encouraged Le to become a trained counselor.
While many Americans have embraced the value of mental health counseling, many Vietnamese are reluctant to seek help in this way. Le speaks with a comfortable ease as she explains that she hopes she can help others someday — either in the U.S. or back in Vietnam — by pressing through some of these barriers.
“In the culture, it’s not a thing. They don’t really open up,” she said. “So I hope that somehow I can target both Vietnamese here and Vietnamese in Vietnam and do ministry through [counseling]. That’s my vision for now, but I don’t know where God’s going to lead me to yet.”
When asked whether she hopes to stay in the U.S. or return to Vietnam after seminary, she says she’ll go “wherever God leads me to.”
For now, Le worships and serves at Lighthouse Community Church, a Vietnamese Baptist church in Knightdale, playing the piano and translating each sermon from English into Vietnamese.
While studying during the COVID-19 pandemic, separated from family and friends in Vietnam, James celebrated his 90th birthday, and Le’s grandfather died thousands of miles away. Due to pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions, she was unable to attend either celebration of these two lives well lived.
But Le handles those difficulties in a way that is emotionally mature for a young woman in her 20s. She has a quiet assurance and a bubbly enthusiasm that is a reminder that she is a part of a legacy that began with James, was passed along to her grandfather, then to her father, and now has settled sweetly on Annie Le.
Editor’s Note: Traci DeVette Griggs is a freelance writer who has spent much of her life communicating on public policy, most recently concentrating on immigration. Traci lives in Raleigh, N.C., with her husband, John, where they are members of Fairview Baptist Church. She has two adult children and two grandchildren.