The ‘beautiful shop’ is, of course, the local salon, or beauty shop. Mary Lien had taken one look at the remnants of my last pedicure, chipped from stubbing my toe on a curb, and informed me of our need to visit the beautiful shop. That fading pedicure, of course, had been at a Vietnamese nail salon—but half a world away, in Southern California. Now I was in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City to be exact, and discovering that it is not just in America that the Vietnamese are known for their beauty shops, but here in Vietnam itself as well.
Mary Lien and her husband are the leaders of the local Presbyterian Church, the United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam (UPCV). Because the communist government is not overly comfortable with ‘religious organizing’ in Vietnam, most gatherings are forced to meet in houses, and remain small—in the range of 20-25 people attending. This government persecution has, as a by-product, birthed a vast network of such house churches. Often those who are leading them have only a bit more training about the ‘stories of Jesus’ than those who they are seeking to lead, but the UPCV has developed a nimble training program to match the fluidity of their churches and leaders.
I am here with a group from the PCUSA as well as representatives from the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT), to see how the three (PCUSA, PCT and UPCV) might partner in mission together. It is like a ‘triangle mission,’ as Pastor Andrew Chang, General Secretary of the PCT (and also a fabulous photographer!) described it—with the love of Christ at the center, and each of the three churches making up the equal sides, working together, learning from one another.
Today was a day for just such learning. Our group spent the majority of the day in a meeting (thankfully, with 95+ degree temperatures and 85% humidity, in an air conditioned room) learning about the persecution of the church in Vietnam (“we must keep one leg in the prison, and one leg in the church” was how Pastor Khoa described it—he’s been imprisoned for being a pastor) but also learning how the church in Vietnam has managed to adapt to a changing political climate and not just survive, but thrive and grow.
The UPCV has, even in the midst of its own difficulties, also sought to reach out to migrant workers, many of whom are from Vietnamese tribal groups, who go to Malaysia or Taiwan or Thailand for work and can be vulnerable to issues that often face migrant workers in this area of the world. Because of their caring for these people, it is happening that when workers are able to return home to their villages in the tribal areas of Vietnam, they are bringing their families and sometimes communities into the UPCV house church movement as well. These workers have been loved by the UPCV and it is a love that they then are sharing with their own friends and family when they return.
In the middle of all of this talk of ‘big things’ we took a break for lunch—prepared by Mary Lien and one of the women in the church. Rice, vegetables, meat, crab, soup and mango were all in the mix, and delicious. As the meal was winding down Mary Lien came to get me—we were the only two women in the group. “We have to go do women’s things,” she explained to the men, who were rather afraid to ask anything more.
We walked outside their house that also serves as a church, down about three doors, to another house that also serves as the ‘beautiful shop.’ It was simpe—no spa chairs in this shop. My chair was plastic. I was given a small plastic bowl of water to soak my hands, and another one for my feet. Mary Lien chatted with the women in the shop as I sat there, as oblivious as I am to the Vietnamese around me in the nail shops in the US, but completely content to sit and take it all in. Mary Lien wanted me to take pictures of the single girls, joking that it might help them find American husbands. One woman was in curlers. Another was in the midst of a color job. A third was getting some sort of facial mask, and another was getting a pedicure. The small little front room of the house was full of activity.
As I sat and waited I was struck by the blessing of being able to share that space with those women. Women who, in many ways, might seem very different from me—in hair color or appearance or other external criteria. Women who took me into their space with no hesitation.
I was also struck by the living example of the house churches of the presbyterian church—a hospitality, as well, offering the love of God to those in their neighborhoods and those in need.
A beautiful shop indeed.