Asian-American missionaries get real about their missionary experiences

Editor’s note: Visit IMB’s booth at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, June 12-15 in Anaheim, California, to meet IMB missionaries, including Henry and Thu Phan, and IMB staff.

IMB missionary Henry Phan shares a Bible passage in Southeast Asia. Henry and his wife, Thu, spent 20-plus years working among Asians to bring about gospel access, belief and church multiplication. You can hear stories about their missionary presence in five different countries at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting June 12-15. IMB Photo

Seeing God at work is something Henry and Thu Phan never take for granted. They have seen a man deny there is a god until the Holy Spirit got a hold of his heart and changed him forever. They discipled a woman who was disowned by her family for choosing to be baptized. They’ve seen prayer answered time after time.

In their 20-plus years in five different countries with the International Mission Board, there’s not much they haven’t experienced.

“We have so many stories,” Thu says, smiling at her husband. “It’s too hard to narrow it down. There is not enough time to hear everything.”

Portrait of Henry and Thu Phan. IMB Photo

Henry waves her off and talks fast, trying to fit as much as he can into a short conversation.

“There was a man who said he would believe in our God if He healed him from a work accident. We explained it doesn’t work like that…after weeks of sitting with him, he came to a saving faith.

“Our hours were a little funny because we worked with migrants. We would have small group Bible studies after they got off their shift, often late at night. They made time for God’s Word even though they were so tired.

“We had to get a little creative with our baptismal pools,” Henry says with a laugh. “We used everything from the ocean to bathtubs to big buckets on city sidewalks.”

Thu laughs and corrects small details in the rapid-fire stories. They are a team in life and ministry. They hope their stories will inspire others to heed God’s calling to join them.

Ezra Bae, IMB’s Asian Church Mobilization strategist, points out there are only 200 Asian-American missionaries currently serving with the IMB. With the IMB’s goal of sending 500 more missionaries to the field, the trio wants Asian-American churches to respond in a big way. Bae hopes Asian churches send at least 100 more missionaries by the year 2025.

“It’s very important to mobilize Asian churches,” Bae says. “We need to send more missionaries, together.”

As Henry and Thu help to mobilize churches, they get questions all the time about their life on the mission field and how it all works. They find the best way to answer is by using their own stories to illustrate how God is at work among the nations.

Click on the questions below to see answers:

I’ve already started my career. How do I know God is calling me to missions?

Henry Phan: We were already established working at a church in the state of Washington. We had a house and two kids when God called us to career missions. We heard about the needs of Vietnamese who crossed from Western to Eastern Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. They seemed to be open to the gospel and that stirred our call to missions.

I struggled responding to God’s call because I had a wife and two small children. We also had a house that still needed to be paid for and a vibrant church ministry. Why would we leave?

Thu and I set aside 40 days to pray for God’s guidance. We sought help from the Word of God. We prayed and fasted. We waited for affirmation and confirmation from people around us. Sometimes people you haven’t said anything to about a decision like this will come up and say, “I sense God wants to use you.”

We used all of these to affirm God’s call for us to go to Germany as a family.

How will my young kids survive on the field?

Thu Phan: The IMB supported our family in so many ways. One of my initial fears had been, how will we survive going to the doctor when we don’t know the language. God answered quickly. We had not been in Germany long and did not have a good grasp on the language when our youngest, a toddler at the time, got a peanut stuck. He could not breathe well. We rushed to the hospital. There, they told us we needed a German credit card to guarantee payment. They would not treat our son until we could pay.

We called the mission business manager. He not only got on the phone and spoke to them in German to explain the situation but gave them his personal German credit card to guarantee payment. This is where the IMB shines. We have seen this kind of support all over the world.

God will give you peace of mind that our organization really takes care of missionaries so we can focus on the main task — sharing the gospel and making disciples.

Will my children get “proper” schooling and get into a good college?

Thu Phan: Worrying about education is just what we do as Asian-American parents. (Laughing) We were concerned that our children wouldn’t learn English like other American children. Henry and I are both first-generation Americans. We speak Vietnamese in our home. I wondered how would our children learn English? Would they have to take ESL classes when they went back for college? I’m not a teacher, would our kids have to be homeschooled?

I worried for nothing. The IMB cared as much about the education of our children as we did. The organization works with you to find the best option for your family. For us, we sent our children to international schools located in the cities where we lived. Not only were their classes taught in English, but they also had some in the local language.

Our children are more than bi-lingual; they are multi-lingual. They graduated from rigorous international high school programs and attended good colleges. Yes, our children had to learn to adapt back to the U.S.A. when they returned for college, all missionary’s kids do this with the support of extended family and churches. Now, our daughter has a master’s degree while our son is studying to be a physical therapist.

Is it hard to adjust to a new place and culture?

Henry Phan: Honestly, for those of us who were refugees or migrants, we have an advantage. We’ve already changed culture and language at least once. To change to a third is not as hard as we make it out to be in our heads. You already have all the skills. Second-generation Americans have these skills, too.

Apply the principles you already know. We came to America and adapted to the culture. We did that by seeking help from colleagues and others around us. So, on the mission field, talk to others who have been through the same thing. You can rely on other missionaries who have already been through this. There are also Asian missionaries you can talk to for culture-to-culture specific help.

Be bold and go out and try new things. Try your new language. People will laugh but that just bonds you faster to your neighbors. My language skills in the beginning were so horrible that I called someone “Mr. Throw Up.” Everyone laughed but they saw that we loved them enough to learn their heart language. They helped us and with that, they saw our hearts. They opened their homes, and we were able to share the love of Jesus Christ.

What is your job like on the mission field?

Henry Phan: There’s no such thing as a typical day and that’s what makes it so exciting. You might share the gospel with someone who has never heard one day and the next you spend it organizing Bibles and study material into boxes for delivery to small groups and churches. The goal is always to have a gospel conversation, disciple believers and empower them to begin churches.

We followed the principle of “sow generously, reap generously.” We sowed in many ways: distribution of tracts, New Testament and evangelistic materials, social ministries, personal witnessing, group sharing and mass evangelism.

We praise the Lord for bringing many people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior during our ministry. We started groups/churches as soon as we had a few believers in that location. We focused on discipleship training and putting the DNA of sharing the gospel in new believers as soon as possible. We trained leaders, who in turn trained others to be leaders.

In our ministry, this training was important because we worked with migrants. We could share with them in one country, but many would return home to places missionaries couldn’t go. They’d take the gospel with them and know how to start groups/churches in their hometowns.

How can our church mobilize and send missionaries?

Ezra Bae: The IMB works with churches — like Asian-American congregations — to train and send missionaries globally. We exist to partner with Southern Baptist churches to engage the missionary task all over the world.

Henry Thu: There are many ways for a church to mobilize. This might include praying for missionaries. Contact the IMB and ask for a missionary to visit your church to talk about their ministry. Another way is to be part of the cooperative giving of our Southern Baptist Churches. There are many ways to give through your church or through the IMB website. And finally, you can go.

You don’t have to put a “for sale” sign in your yard right away. There are several pathways you can take to experience this type of ministry: short-term and long-term. For instance, I did a two-year missionary term before we were married in the Philippines through the Journeyman program. There are many ways to become involved in missions — it might even start with reaching people in your own town. You can reach a people group in a far-off place by ministering and becoming friends with someone you met at the store.

Answers have been edited and condensed for length.