In memoriam: Missionary Rachel Kerr James, 1934-2023

Rachel Kerr James, 1934-2023

Rachel Kerr James, a longtime International Mission Board missionary who shared the gospel in Vietnam, as well as other areas of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Northern Africa and the Middle East, died April 18, 2023. She was 88.

Rachel was born Oct. 17, 1934, in Durham, North Carolina. She received the Bachelor of Science from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Rachel married Sam James in 1957.

In 1962, the Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board) appointed Sam and Rachel James missionaries to Vietnam. The couple served in South Vietnam beginning in 1962. She served for 14 years during the war as a nurse practitioner.

“I had always wanted to be a nurse and had wanted to be a missionary, but God had not called me yet,” Rachel shared while seeking appointment with the FMB.

“My mother had wanted to be a missionary and I suppose hearing her talk during my early years and later realizing the needs of the world through hearing missionaries speak, l felt God called me to be a foreign missionary,” she continued. “It was after I surrendered my life to the Lord in June 1948, that I then answered the increasingly definite call to foreign missions. Since then, my whole life has been centered around this call of God.”

Since then, my whole life has been centered around this call of God.

Rachel ran medical clinics in rural villages on the outskirts of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. 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. Sam was nearly killed three times between 1965 and 1970.

Sam and Rachel James pose with the building named for Sam at dedication ceremony in 2002. IMB Photo

By April 1975, Saigon’s fall was imminent. Rachel and their children were evacuated to Thailand. Sam 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.

Later, Rachel served as a nurse practitioner in other areas of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Northern Africa and the Middle East for 38 years.

Rachel James looking at young patient in Saigon at a medical clinic. IMB Photo

Her husband, Sam, held a variety of leadership roles with the IMB and has led trainings and conferences in 115 different countries. Sam oversaw the construction and development of a new training center near Richmond, Virginia. Missionaries are still being trained there today, and buildings there bear his name.

In 2002, God opened a door for Sam and Rachel to return to Vietnam. Sam 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.

Sam and Rachel James while missionaries in Vietnam. Here, they pose with a view of Da Lat, the capital of Lâm Đồng Province and the largest city of the Central Highlands region in Vietnam. IMB Photo

In 2009, Sam was formally recognized by the Vietnamese government as a “professor of religion.” This allowed him to begin teaching regularly at the newly formed Vietnamese Baptist Bible Institute.

Sam and Rachel officially retired from IMB on Dec. 31, 2013, so they could focus on Rachel’s growing health concerns.

Prior to being commissioned as an international missionary, Sam helped found Homestead Heights Baptist Church in Durham, which is now known as The Summit Church.

Rachel is preceded in death by her son, Philip.

She is survived by Sam James, her husband of 65 years; children Deborah Winans (Chris), Stephen James (Barbara), and Michael James (Elizabeth); four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held May 13 at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Read an obituary here.