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JOURNEY TO VIETNAM: Providing sustenance

First Baptist Church gives relief, food to flood-ravaged province

POSTED: December 21, 2007 5:03 a.m.

DIEN BAN PROVINCE, VIETNAM -- It was supposed to be a trip to rebuild a day care center, but the worst flooding in 42 years made that impossible.

The flooding reportedly claimed the lives of 155 people. And it happened while a group of eight from First Baptist Church on Green Street were in Vietnam.

Rain, mud and mold were constant companions. A ride on a motorbike, a popular form of transportation in Vietnam, was an adventure in avoiding deep standing puddles.

Storm drains are virtually nonexistent. With nowhere for water to go, it stayed in the streets. Beyond the pavement, it was mud, mud and more mud.

The first time the Gainesville mission group really felt dry was somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on the flight home. They left Gainesville on Nov. 14 and returned Nov. 22, Thanksgiving Day.

But the team's dogged determination to succeed brought wholesale changes in the original plans.

"We had already sent $10,000 ahead of us to buy all the materials," said Dr. William L. Coates Jr., senior pastor of First Baptist Church on Green Street. "For $10,000, we could build a nice day care center and orphanage facility. The material was already there waiting for us."

Upon arriving, Coates and the group from Gainesville learned that reaching the building site would be impossible because of the floods. The building, however, will go on.

"With the cheap labor in Vietnam, they can build that building better without us," Coates said. "What we ended up doing, was much more needed."

The project became a humanitarian effort to provide food and other supplies for residents in a portion of Dien Ban Province, an impoverished area near Da Nang.

Living conditions were not good before the flood. In the aftermath, homes were badly damaged by the onslaught of water and mud.

Coates, clad in sandals and shorts, pulled a small cart through the streets of the village. As word spread that the Americans were giving away food, the crowd swelled.

"We were just mobbed," Coates said. "It was heartbreaking, but it was also exhilarating to know that we were providing something that was vital. The sad part is a momentary difference. We gave them enough food for about a month, but we ran out before we could reach everyone."

In Vietnamese, the villagers called out, "Come my way," or "Come down my street."

Walking near the rice paddies, Coates' legs became covered in mud. Through a series of gestures, he conveyed to a Vietnamese woman the need to wash the mud off of his legs.

He went in her mud-ravaged home and used the water to wash his legs.

"I turned around and started out and looked at her and she looked so needy," he said. "I pulled out $40 and gave it to her and she started crying."

He later learned that the amount, while relatively small in American terms, was the equivalent of a year's income.

During the trip, the group also handed out school supplies to orphanages and schools.

Coates daughter, Liz, was on the trip and was struck by the poverty she saw.

"I could not believe the desperation of the people," Liz Coates said. "We got mobbed for a pack of noodles. It's not that much to us, but to them it was huge. It was so important to get that box of noodles. I was touched by that."

Times photographer Robin Michener Nathan joined the group from First Baptist Church on Green Street during their mission trip to Vietnam. Times community editor Harris Blackwood conducted interviews in Gainesville and compiled the story from notes and recordings made in Vietnam.



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