It was 1953, the end of the Korean War, and the 21-year-old North Carolinian was aboard a Navy aircraft carrier sailing through the South China Sea. From the deck of the USS Sitkoh Bay, James caught his first glimpse of the place that would capture his heart and anchor his life's work: Vietnam.
The young navigator stood transfixed as his ship steamed down the coast, his eyes drinking in the rugged emerald hills of Vietnam's central highlands. James couldn't go ashore that day, but there was a magnetism about the country he couldn't describe.
What he didn't know was that God would use the encounter to drastically change the course of his life -- sparking a 51-year career in international missions. That legacy was cemented on Dec. 31 of last year when James, 81, retired from the International Mission Board.
Together with his wife Rachel, the couple spent more than 20 years sharing the Gospel with the Vietnamese people, touching thousands of lives.
"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," James recalls. "Sometimes I think the call of God is something of a mystery."
James was a relatively new Christian that day on the Sitkoh Bay when God began pulling him to Vietnam. Only two years earlier, he had given his life to Jesus while reading the Bible late one night, holed up with a flashlight in an empty ammunition room below the carrier's flight deck.
"When I told the men in my division that I had become a Christian, there was all kinds of laughter and disbelief. They were even taking bets that I wouldn't last a week," James says with a chuckle.
Roughly a decade later, though, James was on a ship headed for Vietnam, this time as a Southern Baptist missionary. Under appointment by the Foreign Mission Board (today's IMB), Sam and Rachel boarded an ocean liner in San Francisco bound for Hong Kong with their three young children, eventually arriving in Saigon Nov. 3, 1962.
"I walked into a steamy, hot country with no air conditioning anywhere at the time," James remembers. "There were dark war clouds way off on the horizon."
But the couple had come too far -- and were too busy learning Vietnamese -- to be deterred by the possibility of war.
James began pastoring Grace Baptist Church, Southern Baptists' first church plant in Vietnam. He helped start several other churches in the Saigon area and he trained many of the congregations' leaders at the Vietnam Baptist Theological Seminary, which he founded. He served as the seminary's president and a primary professor, training more than 45 Vietnamese students at the school's Saigon campus from 1967-75.
While James taught, Rachel ran medical clinics in rural villages on the outskirts of Saigon. Feeling led at 14 to be a missionary nurse, she saw an urgent need for health care due to a shortage of Vietnamese doctors and nurses, because many were drafted into the South Vietnamese military.
The family couldn't escape the war forever. Fighting crept closer as North Vietnamese forces pushed toward Saigon. James was nearly killed three times between 1965 and 1970; his closest call came during a miraculous escape from a Viet Cong roadblock that erupted into a firefight. (AUDIO: Escaping a Viet Cong roadblock)
By April 1975, Saigon's fall was imminent. Rachel and the children were evacuated to Thailand. James stayed behind with a handful of IMB colleagues to care for tens of thousands of refugees pouring into the city. The missionaries were finally forced to flee the country just five days before communist forces overran the city.
But God wasn't finished with Sam and Rachel yet.
In 1980, James was tasked with a unique challenge: overseeing the construction and development of a new training center near Richmond, Va., to serve as the launch pad for future Southern Baptist missionaries. Known today as the International Learning Center, more than 10,000 new missionaries have passed through its doors since the ILC opened in 1984.
After finishing his work at ILC, James rose through the ranks of IMB leadership, serving as area director for East Asia, regional vice president for Europe and finally as vice president for creative leadership development. But despite his success, he was still a missionary at heart. And there was nowhere else on earth he'd rather share the Gospel than Vietnam.
In 2002, God opened a door for Sam and Rachel to return to their first love. James retired from IMB's staff and, at 70, asked to be reassigned to Vietnam. Though the country's government wouldn't allow the couple to live there, the Jameses were permitted to make trips to Vietnam several times a year. They reconnected with Grace Baptist Church -- which had survived Vietnam's Communist revolution -- and with many of Sam's former students. (AUDIO: Communion in an abandoned zoo)
James soon recognized the need for theological training among Vietnamese Baptist church leaders and, in 2009, was formally recognized by the Vietnamese government as a "professor of religion." This allowed James to begin teaching regularly at the newly formed Vietnamese Baptist Bible Institute, a seminary-like training center housed within Grace Baptist Church. He has spent the past five years teaching a new generation of pastors and church leaders, and today Vietnam's Baptist church is growing as a result.
Sam and Rachel officially retired from IMB on Dec. 31, 2013. But James says he doesn't like the "R" word.
"'Retire' seems like you're quitting," he says. "But it's not over."
Despite the legacy of Southern Baptist missionaries like the Jameses, evangelical Christians make up less than 2 percent of Vietnam's 92 million people. And while there are still chapters to be written in the Jameses' love story with Vietnam, Sam acknowledges it's time for others to start writing their own stories. Leaving Rachel behind is getting harder, he says, as she deals with health limitations, so his primary responsibility is at home.
"She's taken care of me for 57 years, and it's time for me to take care of her some," he says.
The couple leaves IMB with no regrets, thankful for the privilege of being a part of God's Great Commission for so many years.
"Whether it was an investment in Vietnamese lives or an investment in missionaries, it's the investment in people that I count as the greatest part of my life," James says.
Don Graham is an IMB senior writer. Related resources: Explore the impact Sam James and other IMB missionaries made in Vietnam in "Legacy of Love" on commissionstories.com. Sam James, in a video, shares why he had a devotion to sharing the Gospel with the people of Vietnam at commissionstories.com/video.
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