This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of Paul A. Contento (CN 472, T3) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words have been omitted, except for any non-English phrases which could not be understood by the transcribers. Foreign terms which are not commonly understood appear in italics. In very few cases words were too unclear to be distinguished. If the transcriber was not completely sure of having gotten what the speaker said, "[?]" was inserted after the word or phrase in question. If the speech was inaudible or indistinguishable, "[unclear]" was inserted. Grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. The transcribers have not attempted to phonetically replicate English dialects but have instead entered the standard English word the speaker was expressing.
Chinese place names are spelled in the transcript in the old or new transliteration form according to how the speaker pronounced them. Thus, "Peking" is used instead of "Beijing," if that is how the interviewee pronounced it. Chinese terms and phrases which would be understood were spelled as they were pronounced with some attempt made to identify the accepted transliteration form to which it corresponds.
Readers should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and rule than written English.
... Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence on the part of the speaker.
.... Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcript was made by Jonathan Seefeldt and Paul Ericksen and was completed in February
Collection 472, T3. Interview of Paul A. Contento by Robert D. Shuster, December 9, 1992.
[overlap from T2]
CONTENTO: “What was your thinking before we arrived?” You know. “What was your attitude towards capitalism?” and so on and so on and so on, exploitation and so on and so on and so on. Then the second thing is: “What is your attitude now? After all this learning, what is your attitude now?” So we had to put that attitude. The sting was in the third question. The question was: “Trace the change in your thinking from what you were to what you have become,” you see. Still they...they passed me and gave me a...gave me a passing grade and handed me back my...my exam paper. That’s why they thought this guy is hopeless.
SHUSTER: But they didn’t allow you to teach anymore, or did they?
CONTENTO: No, no, that’s all stopped.
SHUSTER: When were you able to leave China?
CONTENTO: We left...I went up and joined with my wife [pauses]...I want to say 1951.
[end of overlap from T2]
CONTENTO: Yeah. But they wouldn’t allow us to go direct to Canton, to Hong Kong. We had to go to Shanghai and then down to...
[break in recording]
SHUSTER: ...and ordered all the...of its workers out of China in 1951. I read that there was some controversy about that. Some missionaries thought they should have ordered them out earlier, or that the decision should have been reached in a different way.
CONTENTO: The problem was this.
SHUSTER: Were you aware...were you aware of this?
CONTENTO: I’ll...I’ll...I’ll tell you in a nutshell. The problem was this, that Bishop [Frank] Houghton, the general director, had terrible insomnia, terrible insomnia. So he decided to go to Australia. So he and his wife went to Australia to try to find some way to overcome this insomnia, because it was killing him. And from Australia he kept writing to China to tell us what to do. So there he was in Australia, ten thousand miles away, telling us: “Don’t leave China! I don’t believe God’ll allow the Communists to take over China. Don’t leave China. If you want to leave China, you have to resign from the mission.” Oh, tough as that. Here he was, out of the country telling the people what to do. Well, he was completely wrong, you see. And so, the...that was one of the reasons also why he was...he was...made him resign, you know. Because some left and resigned from the mission. Some very good missionaries resigned.
SHUSTER: Herbert Kane, I think, was one.
CONTENTO: Yeah, yeah, and so was Dick...Dick...Dick [pauses] Hillis, and...some others. And...well, this...this was nonsense. It was nonsense. So his orders [were] countermanded, and there was one man in Shanghai who took the responsibility, a Scotsman, I forget his name now, but anyway he said, “Everybody evacuate.” So I was there in Shanghai. We all gathered in Shanghai when we were on our way out [pauses]...yeah. Was that the way it went? Let me see, something like that.
SHUSTER: Shanghai to Canton?
CONTENTO: Yeah, yeah. Well, we didn’t all go out at one time, no, no, no. We just...I’m sorry. We went out in driblets, yeah, in driblets, yeah. So anyway the people started leaving, just started leaving. So they went all to Hong Kong. Luckily in Hong Kong there was some British barracks that were empty (they’re called Quonset huts) and plenty of room for missionaries to bunk in there for...temporary.
SHUSTER: Was the...?
CONTENTO: The missionary...the mission ordered all of them to go back home, each to their own home area. And then they said, “When we re...revise our policy, we’ll call you back.”
SHUSTER: And there was a conference in England to revise the society.
CONTENTO: That’s right. But I...we didn’t go home. We didn’t go. There were only...there were only...there were only two...two couples that didn’t go. Ourselves, you know that...we were invited by Calvin Chao to go to Singapore. And that’s what we did: we went to Singapore. And we were there...we were in Quonset huts about eight months. Mmy wife was teaching in the Anglican girls school in Hong Kong for awhile. So then we went, and Calvin Chao took us to Singapore and....
SHUSTER: And that was in ‘52 then that you went to Singapore?
CONTENTO: ‘51, ‘51, yeah.
SHUSTER: ‘51 in Singapore.
CONTENTO: So in the fall of ‘51 we arrived in Hong...in Singapore. And Calvin Chao started the Singapore Theological Seminary. So he and his wife and myself and his...and my wife, we were four teachers, started the Singapore Bible College.
SHUSTER: So had you left the mission at this point or you resigned?
CONTENTO: No, no, no, we just remained in the mission.
SHUSTER: You were detached service or whatever.
CONTENTO: Well, no, the mission didn’t scatter really. It...it...the machinery retained, the machinery retained. The general director and secretary and finance treasurer and so on and so forth, they...they all remained and...and....
SHUSTER: One question about...just a point about the changeover in the mission, too. With Bishop Houghton, was the...his involvement in Inter-Varsity and the attention he gave to that, did that have any influence on his resignation?
CONTENTO: Oh, yes, of course. Then...what happened was, when we were in those Quonset huts, then he came to Hong Kong. And I don’t remember what happened after that. He came to Hong Kong. But anyway, there was that conference held in England.
SHUSTER: At Bournemouth [in 1951].
CONTENTO: And...at Bournemouth. And then they decided that to...to ask him to resign, make him [pauses]...director...
SHUSTER: Emeritus or...?
CONTENTO: ...director [pauses]...what they call [pauses] a consulting director, consulting director. That’s right. But he was really fired. And as a matter of fact I visited him in England. He got a church in England, (Church of England), in England. And my wife and I visited him there. And his wife said, “Imagine that, imagine that. The underlings firing their...their own chief,” you know, the underlings firing their own chief. But he...he wasn’t...he wasn’t really a man for the job, you see. Originally he wasn’t suitable for that job.
SHUSTER: Why was that?
CONTENTO: He didn’t have the...the basic gifts of administration, and that’s why he went off track, you know. He didn’t...he didn’t see where his aim...where he was aiming, what his ultimate motives were or ultimate goal. He didn’t set the right goal for the mission himself. He...he was split in his thinking. So that’s was thing. The best thing they could do was to let him go. And....
SHUSTER: What was the goal of the Singapore Bible College when it was founded? Why [unclear]...?
CONTENTO: Well, there was no...there was no Bible college in Singapore. All that whole Southeast Asia was a....one vast mission field. And Singapore itself had about sixty-five churches, mostly Chinese, a few Tamil churches, mostly Chinese. And the...the pastors there were very [pauses] very concerned that they...they weren’t...they didn’t have any candidates for the m...for the...for the pulpit, you know. And so they really needed a theological seminary. So they asked Calvin Chao to come and start one. And he did, and then he brought my wife and I, and his wife and we...we got started in summer 1951, about August 1951.
SHUSTER: What did you teach?
CONTENTO: Oh, I taught various subjects. I was Dean of Students anyway, and I taught doctrine, different books of the Bible and the Bible background and a few things like that, you know. And my wife was a very good teacher. She was much superior to me, and....
SHUSTER: What did she teach?
CONTENTO: She taught a number of subjects, and also taught English, which they needed very badly, so.... But it’s interesting that at the same time I was teaching in Theological Seminary, I was teaching in the...in the university there as well.
SHUSTER: At Nanyang?
CONTENTO: At Nanyang University, yeah. And....
SHUSTER: Now that school has a reputation of being Leftist or Marxist?
CONTENTO: No, there’s no.... At that time it was Leftist. But that was the very beginning, yeah. And they...they had great trouble there because of that, you know. Lin Yu-Tang came out to be the...the President, and then they met him at the airport and the Communists sort of threatened him, and so he took a plane and went back home to America [laughs]. You...you’ve heard about Lin Yu-Tang?
CONTENTO: Oh, Lin Yu-Tang, well, he’s very famous. He wrote some famous books on China. He’s Chinese. Dr. Lin Yu-Tang. My Country and My People, very famous Chinese book.
SHUSTER: But he was coming out to be president of the university?
CONTENTO: No, they called him because he was very famous. They called him to be the principal of the Nanyang University. But the Communists were in...were in power, still in Singapore at that time, very strong. And when they heard he was coming, they...they went to the airport to confront him and he...he was afraid, he was frightened they were going to kill him. So he...so they asked a different man to come, and this man was named Chiang and he’d been the principal of...the president of a college in central China and knew my wife. So that when he came and took over the university, the first thing he did was ask Mrs. Contento to come and teach English. And then they saw that I could do it too, so they invited me to teach English language. And so I was doing nine hours at the university while I was still doing the semin...[laughs] the work in the seminary there.
SHUSTER: And, of course, you were also working with Inter-Varsity, is that correct?
CONTENTO: Yes. Well then we got started. And Inter-Varsity in Singapore is very very wonderful. Something very wonderful happened. Singapore, a small place, a lot of Christians. And the university had only about a thousand students. So there were a number...quite a number of Christians in the university already. And they were mostly of the Brethren persuasion, because there were five Brethren assemblies in Singapore, started by British. Plymouth Brethren assemblies, you know. So these were students in the university there. So we got a hold of them, and the first thing we did was to have a...a big conference up in the...in the country, up on the mountains in...in Cameron Highlands in...Malaysia. And that was the founding of the...of the IVF in...in Singapore.
SHUSTER: How did the IV work in Singapore compare with the IV work in China?
SHUSTER: What were their similarities and differences?
CONTENTO: The principles were always the same. That is to say, we trained students to be the leaders, not the foreigner to be the leaders. It must be a self-perpetuating group. So you have teach leadership training and methodology in...in meetings. You know, different methods to run meetings, different ways. You don’t have a preacher all the time. You have discussions and various kinds of...the meetings. They’re many, many different kinds of...styles of meeting. And you teach them that, so that it becomes a group-centered, not just a leader-centered. This is the secret of...of meetings. Also, Bible study methods. Teach them the inductive Bible study method, you know. And so that they’d become...so that their leadership was so great that in...inside of eight years, it was...it was a flourishing group.
SHUSTER: Were there differences between the work in China and Singapore? Were there...?
CONTENTO: Very different. Because the...the people in Singapore were already Eng...more or less English-speaking. You had Chinese speakers, of course. All of them could speak Chinese well, but they were already English-influenced, you know. Their English was rather a British tint...tint on it, you know. So...and so...so it was...it was very, very easy. But something greater than that started in Singapore. We started the Inter-School Christian Fellowship. You’ve heard of that, the ISCF?
SHUSTER: Inter-High School?
CONTENTO: Inter-High School Christian Fellowship. And...at that time the British were in charge. We had the freedom of the high schools. We could hold...hold meetings right in the schools. And we got that started and...before the IVF work really got going. So that we had about ten or twelve high schools...a lot of high schools in Singapore had these meetings already functioning. And....
SHUSTER: Now these...the students at these meetings had already been Christians and...?
CONTENTO: A lot of them...let’s say...we started out...we called a great big central meeting one day, invited all the Christian high school students to come to it. And when they came to that big meeting, we registered all their names and their schools, and then, what they...if they were Christians or not. And then from that, we had a nucleus right away to start in three, four schools, you see. I had the names and had the schools and we got started that way. And we used Sunday school material for their...kids would lead the meetings themselves [laughs]. You know, I trained them to lead the meetings themselves [laughs]. And we had the leadership training classes. This is very important. If you don’t have leadership training classes, you can’t make it indigenous, you know. They depend on you all the time. So it was great. And we also used Scripture Union material. You know the Scripture Union material?
CONTENTO: Well...well, we used that. That was very helpful. Because we had started...we helped start Scripture Union in Singapore too, my wife and I.
SHUSTER: We...what about opposition? Was there opposition to the work in the high schools or in the...?
CONTENTO: Yes, we did have opposition, and that was the Youth for Christ. I...I don’t think...it...it...it was a...a Youth for Christ fellow was sent there. And he started Youth for Christ meetings, you see. So he...he didn’t understand about Inter-School [Christian Fellowship], he didn’t understand about Inter-Varsity. He understood this...the method they used, you know. And so he...he challenged us and said that he felt that he’d come there with a commission from God to take up all the youth work of Singapore. “Well,” we said to him, “you do what you like and just keep on doing. We won’t interfere with you and we’ll just carry on our way.” That was a...that was a [pauses]...not very pleasant, but we didn’t have any...too much of a conflict.
SHUSTER: So there was no cooperation, but...?
CONTENTO: No. He...he finally fi...it finally fizzled out, just fizzled out, because it was all American controlled, all American planned. And seemed very popular for a while you know and....
SHUSTER: Holding...holding large outdoor rallies?
CONTENTO: Yeah. Rallies here and there in Singapore, great stuff. But ultimately it wasn’t planting anything, you know.
SHUSTER: Do you recall his name?
CONTENTO: [pauses] I think Overstreet or something like that. I’ll...I’ll...I’ll re...I’ll remember in a minute. I forget his name.
SHUSTER: Ken Overstreet?
CONTENTO: No. I don’t...not Overstreet, something like that. I.... Oh, Weatherly!
CONTENTO: Joe Weatherly! My mind is still functioning pretty good, huh?
SHUSTER: More than pretty good, I’d say. [Contento laughs] I was thinking, too, if there was opposition from the Communists, or the other forces in....
CONTENTO: No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, no. The Communists had already been driven off the island, and were really hiding in the jungles of Malaya at that time. That’s another part of the story that we...I took the seminary students up to Malaysia sometimes to do...practice open air preaching, you know. And....
SHUSTER: What was the response to that?
CONTENTO: Well, it was quite good. Our mission opened many, many villages up there. They’re called “new villages,” that the government had taken the people from the countryside and brought them into villages, put a fence around them, and called them “new villages.” And so it was easy to go to those villages and...and...and preach.
SHUSTER: You say “your mission.” You mean CIM [China Inland Mission]?
CONTENTO: Yeah, CIM, yeah. But the...but actually the...the Singapore Theological Seminary where the students were the seminary students. Singapore Theological Seminary students. We went up there a number of times.
SHUSTER: I want to go on and talk about your work in Vietnam. Before we leave Singapore, is there anything else you want to say about...?
CONTENTO: Well, Singapore was just going on so wonderfully well, and really it’s marvelous the way the work grew, you know, and so on and so forth. We even started a church in Singapore of young people, started a church. And it’s going today. Started with fifteen young people and today it’s a church about four hundred.
SHUSTER: Independent church?
CONTENTO: The name of the church...it’s called the Singapore Bible Church. And they have their own building, and their own.... But the...the...the leaders...the beginners began actually in our home in Singapore, started there. The group of young people came together and said, “We’d like to start it.” They used to call it “Singapore Sunday School.” And then from Sunday school it developed into a church. And the...they had a won...wonderful Chinese leader, actually.
SHUSTER: What was his name?
CONTENTO: Lim, Lim. L-I-M. Lim, Lim. [background noises] You want...you want...something you want to write with? Here.
SHUSTER: Yeah, I thought I had a pen but...
CONTENTO: Well, here you are.
SHUSTER: ...I must have put it somewhere.
CONTENTO: I think you’ll find this a good pen.
SHUSTER: Thank you. Lim?
SHUSTER: And what was his...?
CONTENTO: K-E-K, Kek.
CONTENTO: And Tee, T-E-E.
CONTENTO: Lim Kek Tee.
SHUSTER: Lim Kek Tee. How did you come to go to Vietnam?
CONTENTO: Oh, then the work in Singapore was...it was going so...so wonderfully well. And I had been...had been the acting...Calvin Chao left the...left the seminary in 1956, and we didn’t leave Singapore until 1960, so he left the seminary to me. So I was acting principal until 1960.
SHUSTER: Where did he go?
CONTENTO: He came to America and took his whole family to America and started Chinese For Christ movement in America, which he was quite successful. So he’s still functioning, you know. He’s got his theological seminary in...in Los Angeles. It’s got quite a lot of students. So he’s...he’s older than I am, but he’s still functioning [laughs]. Yeah, so we...we...we decided that Singapore was...was crowded with leadership. So one of our mission went through Vietnam and made a survey and wrote it up. And we read this survey. We said, “It’s a challenge.” And there’re a lot of students in Vietnam. No one, no single one working amongst the students. The Christian and Missionary Alliance were the only mission there. They were just doing country work. That was their...their slogan: “Bring all the villages to Christ.” Not the cities, the villages, y’ know. That was the old style. So, we felt this was a challenge, open challenge to us. So we asked the mission. “We...we’d like to go there. And so they negotiated with the Alliance. Took the Alliance six months to say yes, because they’d have to guarantee us in. They were the only mission society recognized in Vietnam. And the reason for that was that Vietnam originally did not allow Protestants in. It was a Catholic outfit. And then one of the Alliance missionaries happened to get in and opened that door. And so they...they put their missionaries in there. So we were invited in. And so when we arrived in Vietnam.... You want...you want me to tell it briefly, huh?
CONTENTO: When we arrived in Vietnam....
SHUSTER: Let me just ask you one question first, though. You mentioned how earlier a lot of people at the mission and CIM had looked askance at the university work. Was it supported now? At this point had it won support?
CONTENTO: Right now?
SHUSTER: No...you had...originally you had...
CONTENTO: Oh, at that time, at that time.
SHUSTER: ...said that people had been kind of dubious...
CONTENTO: Uh-huh, yeah.
SHUSTER: ...about working among university students.
CONTENTO: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
SHUSTER: Had that been pretty much overcome? And was that...?
CONTENTO: Oh yes. Oh sure. They had been enlightened by that time [laughs].
SHUSTER: And there’s no...I mean, you were kind of between...between IV...IVF and CIM.
CONTENTO: That’s right.
SHUSTER: But that not arise any...cause any problems for you.
CONTENTO: No, no, no. They...we initiated....I don’t like to say it this way, but all the work we did, we initiated it and never asked by the mission to do student work. They didn’t have the...they didn’t have the concept. They didn’t have the experience and didn’t...weren’t thinking about it, really. It was out of their...outside of their...I mean, except when Bishop Houghton got converted to the idea [laughs]. So...but anyway, when we arrived, we were...so in Vietnam there are two types of work. There are Chinese churches there, but the Chinese were a very small minority. There were only about five hundred thousand Chinese and about seventeen million Vietnamese. So...so we contacted the Chinese there and we couldn’t contact the Vietnamese. There was nobody...no...no...no student work. So...but the Alliance eventually invited us in. And so began with the Chinese. And we were met by the Chinese at the wharf. And we...we started to...they also had no...no concept of student work either.
SHUSTER: And this was in 1960?
CONTENTO: Right, right, 1960. So we began with a Chinese group there. And the first time I went to a Chinese...they asked me to speak at a Chinese youth meeting [rustling sound], I went to the church and I saw a lot of old people, old...old ladies and old...old men sitting in the front seats and...and some...some young people sitting in the audience somewhere. And I...so I said to the pastor, “Am I supposed to speak to the young people?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, where are they?” [Shuster laughs] He said, “Right here.” I said, “Well, I don’t see them.” “Well,” he said, “there they are.” I said, “But young people’s meetings is for young people.” [imitates pastor’s accent] “Well,” he said, “you know, the old people like to get the blessing too.” [Shuster laughs] Oh, I thought, “Here’s a problem, here’s a problem.” [Shuster laughs] So then I found out he didn’t trust the young people. And he was afraid that some young people might be Communists, you know. They were all worried at that time. The Communists were beginning to...to...to nibble into Vietnam. And so...so he...they didn’t trust the young people. So...so I...I met the young people later. And I said to them, “Look, the young people’s meeting is for young people. We’ve got to make a....a change here.” I said, “I’ll give you an idea.” I said, “Now, when a young people’s meeting is to be, we’ll put some...three or four rows of benches in the front.” And I said, “You come early and sit there. We’ll put a space and let the old people sit beyond...beyond that.” And they did that. And the old people got the idea. Yeah, that’s it. That started a tremendous movement. But the Chinese and Vietnamese, though, they didn’t mix. Yet the Chinese spoke Vietnamese. No Vietnamese spoke Chinese, but the Chinese spoke Vietnamese. There was no conflict, but our big work was with the Vietnamese.
SHUSTER: How did that begin?
CONTENTO: Well, that began in a very curious way. We inquired, “Where’re the Ch...Vietnamese?” So they said, “There’re three or four university students meeting in the French chapel downtown.” There was a little French church right downtown, the most strategic place in Saigon. And the French Protestants used to worship there. So they said, “They meet in there.” So we went there one Sunday and found these four, I think...four students. And we talked with them, and they...they could speak English. And I said, “Well, we’ve come here to help you.” And they had no idea about Inter-Varsity or nothing, you know, ‘cause the Ch...Vietnamese pastors were [pauses]...they were obsessed with the idea that students were not to be heard. Students were only to be seen. They had no voice. I think they were afraid of them. So anyway, there were not enough Christian students to...to worry the Church. So we began and invited them up to our house. And they...we started a service on Monday... Sunday morning, early Sunday morning service in our house. And it was...grew very fast to twenty, thirty, forty. And they came mostly for the English, of course, because that time the Americans were beginning to come. And English was the number one...the key to everything was English. So anyway, that...we...that grew. And some of the...several keen Christian students...Christian students, came and joined it and so it wasn’t long before we...they...they said, “Let’s...let’s have a conference.” So we called a conference. (That was about six months after we arrived in Saigon.) And you know there were about forty that registered for that conference. I have the pictures of them. And it was the beginning. And they had never seen anything like it, because they were the...the leaders, not us. And we had a good program worked out. Good singing, taught them what they call “group games,” indoor games, you know. They had never...boys and girls never sat in the same room together, in the Vietnamese concept. And if the...the boys were there, the girls were here, and [pauses] the girls were here, the boys were there. [laughs] They were separate. But in games we’d go toward...mix them up, you know, and so on and so on. Oh, they were...they were...they were thrilled, they were thrilled. Something new, something new.
SHUSTER: Who were some of the outstanding leaders?
CONTENTO: Well, some of the outstanding leaders then are still living today and they are leaders today in the...in the Vietnamese churches in America still.
SHUSTER: Who are...who are some of them?
CONTENTO: Well, the most...the most outstanding one was...he’s a doctor, he’s a doctor now. Doctor L-E, (pronounces “lay”) Le. The next word is V-I-N-H, and then T-H-A-C-H. Another outstanding leader is N-G-U-Y-E-N, X-U-A-N, capital D-O-C or D-U-C, I’m sorry, D-U-C...
CONTENTO: D-U-C. And a number of others...many others. They’re...they’re today the leading lights of the church. I should close up with that because that’s a very important aspect of the thing. The work grew very, very fast, very fast. We’d had all the experience in China and Singapore, and we had these camps, two camps a year, three camps a year and....
SHUSTER: How many people attended those?
CONTENTO: Oh, a hundred and twenty, a hundred and fifty, even two hundred. And it was very fortunate in a way. The Alliance Mission had a big school up in the mountains called Dalat, Mountain Dalat. And we used to borrow that. It had all the facilities, you see. So it...it was wonderful. And we taught them small group Bible study methods, you know. They break up into small groups and...especially the inductive method or some other methods. And they took like a duck to water, you know. So they were so thrilled. The...the most important thing is we taught them leadership. And this is what the other people discouraged, the Alliance discouraged. We actually shocked the Alliance mission to its roots by sending one of the lis...Dr. Le Vinh Thach. We sent him to America...we sent him to London, London University, to get a B.D. degree. That...that...that was a revolution in Vietnam. Because the Alliance had said, “No Vietnamese student should be allowed to go abroad. ‘Cause they go abroad, they get too proud and they won’t come back. Or they...if they...they come back they’re too proud or they won’t come back at all.” So they had this rule: they would not help anybody go abroad. Here we came and broke their rule. And I remember when this first fellow left Saigon, you know. It...it was a tremendous thing. Of course, he was the number...we...we were lucky in getting some friends in England to support some of these students. We sent about fifteen or twenty abroad, mostly to the USA but some to England.
SHUSTER: Did you find any validity to the complaint that they came back proud?
CONTENTO: No, nothing like that, nothing like that, nothing like that. No.
SHUSTER: Was there...how did...how did university work in Vietnam compare with university work in China and Singapore. Were there differences?
CONTENTO: [pauses] Well, yeah, in some ways. See, China’s so huge, so huge. Where Vietnam, it’s...it’s...it’s not...it’s not small, but it...but it’s...it’s just....
SHUSTER: Not huge.
CONTENTO: It’s long, you know, just long. And it didn’t have...it only had three universities. Where China had about hundred, you know, college and university. So it was much compressed. And everybody knew everybody else. And all these who were converted, most of them were pastors’ children, the leaders. And it was a revolution, I tell you. These young people went back into the churches and they started Sunday school classes and began teaching them. And youth groups, you know, dynamic youth groups discussing modern problems, you know, and discussions. And one...one Alliance missionary said to me, he says, “You in this group talk of things which I don’t even dare to think.” We discussed what he’d didn’t dare to think [laughs]. Where was he brought up? [both laugh] But it shows, you see. They didn’t dare to speak about boy-girl problems, you see. We did. Love and marriage, and all this kind of stuff, you know, and the kids just lapped it up. They....
SHUSTER: Direct practical problems of life.
CONTENTO: Oh yeah, sure, sure, sure, sure, sure.
SHUSTER: I assume that your work was in the south. Did you have anything in the north, in North Vietnam?
CONTENTO: No, no. There was no...no communication to the north.
SHUSTER: How did the escalating war in Vietnam affect your work?
CONTENTO: Well, in my book which I’ve just written on student work, I give quite a bit of space to that. When we arrived in...in Vietnam, the...the Communists were just nibbling at the edge, you know, just nibbling at the villages at the edge, you see. But they...they gradually follow...following Mao’s [Mao Zhedong] principles: “To take the countryside....”
SHUSTER: “...The countryside, surround the city....”
CONTENTO: Yeah, and then the village...the city will fall. And they were doing that sort of thing, you know. Of course, nobody paid any attention to that, that they would ever amount anything. But we saw it coming. We had experience in China, and some in Malaysia and Singapore. So...and...and the students knew, they knew. They...they...they were cognizant of the fact that Chi...Vietnam would probably fall. Then the Americans started coming in 1965. Now this is...seemingly sounds as a joke, but it’s not a joke. I wrote to President [Lyndon Baines] Johnson, and that was 1965. And I said to him...I said, “I’ve been a missionary in China, missionary in Singapore, and I know communism quite a bit.” I said, “You’re g....” ...he’s going to send troops into...into Vietnam. I said, “Now, you have to have a policy. I would suggest to you that your policy be something like this: Vietnam’s a long country. It has an inner part, it has a coastal part and it has a central part.” I said, “You take twenty-five thousand American troops, and...and with twenty-five thousand Vietnamese troops, and start to march from the north, down through the interior along the mountains of Cambodia, along Cambodia, like that...that, scorched earth policy. Every city you take, put a Vietnamese government there [pauses], a southern leader. And then through the middle, which is very mountainous, do the same thing.” They...they only have a few big...big cities, you know. They’re...they’re all small towns. “And then, at the coastal...hold the coastal area. And every place you put...every big city, put twenty-five thousand Americans and twenty-five thousand Vietnamese together to hold it,” you see. And....
SHUSTER: This would just be in South Vietnam?
CONTENTO: The total of Vietnam, yeah. The total. I have [a map?] of Vietnam somewhere here. Yeah.
SHUSTER: Just in South Vietnam or in North Vietnam as well?
CONTENTO: No, no, no South, just south. It...middle-line, middle-line.
SHUSTER: The seventeenth parallel [agreed-upon division between North and South Vietnam designated during a 1954 peace conference between the French and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam)].
CONTENTO: Yeah, that’s right. So, I got a letter back, believe it or not. And they said, “Thank you very much for your letter. The president wants me to reply.” (Just some military reply.) He said, “We...you...you don’t understand our p...our policy. Our policy is not to destroy communism. We don’t intend to destroy the Communists of North Vietnam. We just want them to leave the south. So, no matter how much pressure they put coming down, we’ll put counter-pressure and push them back.” And that was their policy. So my wife and I looked at this, and we said, “Vietnam is gone. They don’t understand communism.” They didn’t read history. You see, the French were defeated by those same guerillas in 19...
CONTENTO: ...’54 in Dien Bien Phu, surrounded and crushed. America didn’t know anything about it. I guess they didn’t learn anything. You can’t defeat guerilla war. Because America knows nothing about guerilla warfare. Like these guys landed in Somaliland [Somalia] last night [15th Marine Expeditionary Unit landed in Mogadishu starting a multinational humanitarian].
SHUSTER: Last night, yeah.
CONTENTO: I mean...I mean if it was a guerilla war that wouldn’t mean anything. They’d wait till you got inland and then they surround you and annihilate you one by one. So that was the answer, and so we said, “Well, Vietnam’s going to be lost.”
SHUSTER: Knowing that, thinking that America was going to lose, or that Vietnam was going to fall, did that affect your plans for Inter-Varsity? Did it...?
CONTENTO: Well, it just doubled our efforts to make sure the leadership was well trained and.... And see, it did pay off, it paid off. Not only was...was the...the view...the group...the IVF very powerful in Vietnam, they took it over. They...they would have these....
SHUSTER: The Vietnamese took it over?
CONTENTO: The Vietnamese took it over. They would have these conferences. They asked us to be the...the...the...the teachers and instructors in leadership and material, provide the material for their Bible studies and this sort of thing. So...and the knowhow. So what happened was that when Vietnam became communist and they evacuated, well, you know, about eight hundred thousand Vietnamese evacuated to America and some in Europe, and some in other places. Today in America there are about 120 Vietnamese churches. And I can honestly tell you...see the main...main group is in south California, in Texas, Florida and in the Chicago area. Well, in this area too. There’re quite a lot in this area too. So who are the leaders?
SHUSTER: And this area, of course, being Lancaster, southeast Pennsylvania.
CONTENTO: That’s right, that’s right. There’s a Vietnamese church in Lancaster, three hundred members. Now what happened was all these churches were founded by IVF students. That’s the proof of the pudding. That’s the proof.
SHUSTER: The seed fell on fertile soil [allusion to Jesus’ parable in the Gospel of Mark 4:1ff and other Gospels].
CONTENTO: Yeah. I went to Philadelphia two weeks ago, held revival meetings in two Vietnamese churches. One church had about 250 present, the other church had over as hundred. These are very wonderful, very dynamic churches, very dynamic. That’s marvelous. All IVF influence.
SHUSTER: What about the church in Vietnam?
CONTENTO: Church in Vietnam is like the church in China. It’s exploded. The church has exploded.
SHUSTER: And is...had...have some of these IV pastors had influence there?
CONTENTO: Yes, well, some of them have gone back to look around, you know, and some have their eyes on going back. In fact, the...the leaders of the Vietnamese group in America here, they intend...they hope to start a seminary in Saigon. And one has a...has a plan to start a Christian college in Saigon.
SHUSTER: Which, of course...
CONTENTO: And he’s going to use the...he’s going to try to use World Vision back-up to get it started. He’s in World Vision now himself.
SHUSTER: ...which, of course, the Communists now call Ho-Chi Minh City.
CONTENTO: Yeah. It’s...now it’s all diluted, you know. It’s...communism doesn’t mean anything. They just...some officials holding onto power. But it’ll...it’ll all collapse actually, very soon. So many Vietnamese hope they can go back actually, something like that.
SHUSTER: Well, hope so.
CONTENTO: I hope so too [laughs], yeah.
SHUSTER: Is there anything else you wanted to say about your work in Vietnam?
CONTENTO: [pauses] Well, only to say that they...they’re very keen to understand the distinction between someone coming and teaching them and someone coming to control them.
SHUSTER: In Vietnam?
CONTENTO: Yeah. And the Alliance missionaries tried to control them. They owned all the churches. All the church properties were owned by the...the mission. All the church properties. So consequently, when the Communists came, what happened? They had to give the deeds back to the Vietnamese and...and...and turned over them. But up until then, they were the boss. They...they...they could...you know. And people like that, they...they don’t say it openly, but they...underneath they feel it, you see. And I’ve found everywhere it’s the same thing. If you...our mission has a very wonderful policy now, and that is that all our missionaries go out to assist an existing church.
SHUSTER: And they work under existing churches.
CONTENTO: That’s right. That’s the new OMF policy, which is a very, very excellent one. And that’s why we’re wanted everywhere. But where you are the boss and you call the shots, and so on and so forth, that’s past date now. It doesn’t...it doesn’t work anymore. And these Vietnamese...I went to Los Angeles recently to a conference, and what was the conference about? It was to establish a new organization called the...the Fellowship of Vietnamese Churches Worldwide. [pauses] I told them, “It’s not good enough.” I said, “If you call it...if you say Fellowship of Vietnamese Churches.” They said they...they wanted to just call it Christian...Vietnamese Christian Fellowship Worldwide. I said, “No, that won’t do. You have to...it’s a Church Fellowship. Fellowship of Churches Worldwide. Then it will be a church.” So the idea is that they’re afraid. Soon as the Vietnam door opens wide, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians, they’ll all rush in there, everyone claiming a. patch of Vietnam as their preserve, you see. And these...you know, these Vietnamese leaders don’t want it.
SHUSTER: They wanted to take the leadership themselves.
CONTENTO: Yeah, they want...they said, “There is an existing Vietnamese church.” It’s called “Tin Lanh.” T-I-N L-A-N-H, Tin Lanh. The Vietnamese church is called Tin Lanh.
SHUSTER: This is the organization you were just mentioning that you were at?
CONTENTO: Yeah. ‘Course we started...IVF has a different name in there, but it’s a Vietnamese name of Inter-Varsity Christian Student Fellowship. And in Vietnam the IVF was very powerful, very powerful.
SHUSTER: And after...you left Vietnam in 1975.
CONTENTO: Well, we escaped to Philippines. And there we...there we...then we went to the...there’s a Bible School in Manila, called the [pauses]...it wa...it was called the Bible School of the Philippines, but it was called the Biblical Seminary of the Philippines? And we were there seven years and 1982 I left Philippines and came to, because we were invited to go to California to teach in a Chinese theological seminary in Berkeley.
SHUSTER: What did you teach?
SHUSTER: Oh, that’s a lot. [laughs]
CONTENTO: You know and ten years [laughs], change subjects, yeah.
SHUSTER: How did you come to escape from Vietnam?
CONTENTO: Oh, that was a miracle. My wife wasn’t going to leave. She was going to stay to the bitter end. Scots...she’s a Scotswoman, is tough. So I had to use a trick. I...I...I knew if the Communists came, we could only stay awhile. They’d kick us out or put us in prison, either one. So I went downtown. It was the...it was the...they were very near the city. The Communists were very near the city, and we know any day they might enter the city, you see, Saigon. So I went down to the Pan-Am [airline] office. And I said, “I need two tickets right away.” And they said, “No hope, no hope.” They said, “The last plane was booked up.” And I was leaving and then someone behind the counter said, “Wait a minute. Isn’t so and so dropping out, that was not going to...not going to go?” “Oh,” she said, “come back, come back. There are two places, two places.” So I bought those tickets, put them in my pocket and went home. I know that if I’d ask my wife she wouldn’t agree. [Shuster laughs] So when I went home and told her, I said, “Now, the last two tickets available for us to leave Vietnam. Should I buy them or not?” She said, “Buy them.” I said, “Alright, here they are.” [both laugh] Yeah. And the morning we left, oh boy, that was a tough one. ‘Cause that morning we were to get to the plane at nine o’clock, so we left at seven. (We were only about a half an hour from the airport.) We left early at seven.
SHUSTER: This was in Saigon?
CONTENTO: In Saigon. But you know what happened? That morning some planes had bombed the palace. So they put a curfew on. Nobody could move. And there we were stuck. We couldn’t go to the airport, we couldn’t get back home. And in about two hours of wiggling and pushing and shoving, we made ourselves to the airport. When we got to the airport, nobody was there, completely evacuated. Not a soul. And so gradually a few people came. There was no water to drink, nothing to...nothing to eat. And so o we sat all day long waiting to see if the plane would come. And at about 6:30 at night we got information: the plane was going to leave Manila to come to Saigon to pick us up. So then...but by the time we got back to Manila it was past midnight. But we got on. Now one of the f...one the jokes about this is that the Baptist missionary there, a man named Sam Jones...Sam James, he was...he used to laugh at us, see. We packed all our stuff and sent it, you know, sent it to the Philippines, sent it here, there and every.... He said, “Nothing happens here.” Two or three years from now, he was on the airport...on that plane.
SHUSTER: [laughs] He was there with you. We’re almost at the end of our tape. I know we’ve only scratched the surface of your life...
CONTENTO: Oh well, I mean...
SHUSTER: ...and a good deal, but....
CONTENTO: ...a lot of it is not important.
SHUSTER: Well, I wouldn’t say that at all. But I’m very grateful for this interview and for the time of sharing. In these just...we have about, I think, a minute left. Is there anything you would like to add or any...anything further you’d like to mention?
CONTENTO: Well, I....I’m here living at a retirement center called the...it’s the Lammermuir House, where the OMF missionary retired workers live. And when I came here just a couple of months ago, my main worry was: “What’ll I do here? Just sit around and eat meals and sleep?”
But, praise the lord, he has opened a very good ministry for me to speak in Vietnamese and Chinese churches, both in Philadelphia and in New York City. [electronic interference] And there’s a local church...Chinese church here, where I speak sometimes. So, all in all, it’s not...it’s going to be a very interesting time.
SHUSTER: Praise the Lord. And through this tape too people will hear and learn about God’s work in China and Singapore and Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
CONTENTO: Maybe they’re not interested that much. [laughs]
SHUSTER: Thank you very much.