Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: April, 1998: “Please,” she sobbed, “don’t leave me here with him. You must take me away with you.”
The driver at last had to peel her from his leg and tell her, “Princess, you wait here.”
The screams and sobs filled his confused head as he drove away.
The entire emotional episode of Princess being removed from the orphanage had taken place while Binh was in Colorado. When she returned on this present trip she patiently worked with me and with those who had come to help her with the orphanage. But her obsession and driving goal was to seek and find Princess and learn of her condition.
At breakfast one morning, I overheard Binh talking to Mr. Minh and another man. Binh was determined to find the worker who had returned Princess to her house. He was the only one who had any knowledge of where she had been taken.
“I have failed in my duty to protect the best interests of that child,” said Binh. “I will go to any lengths to find her and check on her.”
The driver was located and indicated that he thought he could once again find his way through the rice paddies to the house where he had left Princess. Mr. Minh, Binh, Louise Bryer, and the driver headed out that same hour in search of Princess.
“We drove to the end of the world and then walked to hell,” Binh told me, recalling the search.
Later Mr. Minh confided that he would not have approved of the trip had he known the perils and dangers of getting there. “One of the bamboo and wood bridges should not have carried the weight of the car. We had to chase off the bridge a herd of water buffalo because their additional weight along with the car would have surely collapsed the structure.”
The “road” was simply the top of the earthen dike that separated the soggy rice fields. There would be no way to turn the car around to drive out. When the earthen dike became impassable, they parked the car and walked a long distance to a small cluster of Vietnamese rural houses. The driver was confident he would be able to remember the correct house. How could he ever forget? The scene was still burned into his mind. He could still hear the uncontrollable, pleading sobs ringing in his ears.
When they approached the house, none of the four was ready for what they found. There was a seven-year-old girl, a five-year-old girl, and a five-month-old baby lying on the filth-littered floor. An old, scrawny Vietnamese village grandmother was outside. No mother, and the father hadn’t been there for some time. The ages of the children would indicate that they had found the right house. But the children were not the right children. The middle girl was emaciated, and layers of putrid filth covered her body. The pigs, chickens, and other animals had free run of the premises, and no one cared to clean either the house or the dirt-encrusted children.
Binh stooped down to get a closer look at the five-year-old girl as she lay curled up on the floor—not a sound, not a response. She scooped up the child, grabbed a filthy cloth, and headed out to the hand pump to wet the rag stiffened with dried muck.
“Oh, God,” pleaded Binh, “don’t let this be Princess. Let me clean the terrible accumulation of grime from this child’s face, and let me discover that the driver was horribly mistaken. Surely he has brought us to the wrong house. We must go to another house and find my Princess. This child must not be her!”
But it was Princess! Once her face was cleaned of the layers of dirt, the fine features of her face could be recognized.
As Binh looked into the child’s lifeless eyes, there was no response, no recognition.
“I have lost my baby. She is gone again. What have I done to this child? God entrusted her to me, and I have let her die again! God will certainly hold me accountable. I have failed both the Princess and God.” Binh laid the weak child back down on the floor and went out of the house and vomited.
Later the stepmother rode up to the house on a bicycle. Binh pointed out to the scrawny, old grandmother that Princess was now smaller in size than when she left the orphanage.
“Yes,” was the reply. “The child has been sick for the past three days.”
Binh asked to please be allowed to take Princess back to the orphanage where she could be fed and attended to medically. The two village women flatly refused.
“Look,” said Louise, “the dress Princess is wearing is the one we bought for her. But it is so filthy you can hardly recognize it at all. There are no washing facilities here. It is most likely that she hasn’t had that dress off since she was returned to this house.”
The father was not expected to return to the house, so the option of appealing to him to once again return Princess to the orphanage was impossible. Soon some curious, old village women began to gather at the home and peer in through the doorway. Mr. Minh sternly insisted that Binh and Louise leave right away. There had been no response from Princess up to that moment. The visitors concluded that it was no longer possible for Princess to respond intellectually or emotionally. But just as Binh and the other three were about to go, Princess made an effort to stop the driver from leaving. He had left her there once before to be consumed by her nightmare. He had told her to wait there. He had returned once again. Was it not to take her with him? Surely he would not have come just to leave her there—not again!
Princess broke into a wail. Certainly they would not leave without taking her with them, she thought. The stepmother began yelling at Princess and telling her to shut up. If she did not, she would be punished. More curious old village women began to appear. Everything was in total emotional confusion. Mr. Minh now harshly insisted they quickly leave.
Their walk back to the car along the tops of the rice-paddy dikes seemed much longer than their walk in. But the wail of Princess in the hearts and heads of the four visitors did not quiet or diminish even though they moved farther away from the house.
By the time Binh and Louise returned to our hotel in Viet Tri, they were emotional basket cases. The story of Princess has not yet ended well. All the people involved in the plot did not simply ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.
But the story has come to me with crushing impact. It has forced me to grapple spiritually, emotionally, ethically, and behaviorally with the sobering realization that there are millions of Princesses in the world I travel who have no advocate, no help, no hope. Certainly we will not cure all the ills and save all the children. But “as ye have done it unto the least of these orphans and widows, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40, paraphrase).
Project C.U.R.E. is now, and always will be as long as I have an ounce of influence on it, a holy structure of humanitarian outreach dedicated to easing pain and building up the least of these in the name of Christ. We have the power of attorney to work the works and accomplish the desires that would have driven him during his earthly ministry. I believe his all-encompassing ministry includes working out his heart’s desire through my human hands and feet, ears and eyes. My personal life and the life of Project C.U.R.E. must be the manifestation of the eternal life and heart of Jesus Christ. That very real manifestation must be worked out in Evergreen, in Denver, in Nashville, in Los Angeles, in Vietnam, in the Ukraine, in Mongolia, in North Korea, and in all the additional locations that will be added to the present list of sixty-one countries around the world.
Binh Rybacki’s love for the orphaned and the leprous children of Vietnam has both encouraged and challenged my heart and mind. Thank God for the faithful ministry partners of Project C.U.R.E. As I travel, I find myself praying for her; for De, the blind musician in the orphanage; and for little Princess, wherever she might be.
© Dr. James W. Jackson
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