As Vinh Chung watched several young girls playing computer games to help them learn English in a classroom in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, his gaze fell on a little girl about 7 years old, and he rushed from the room.
“I had to walk away, because I knew why she was sitting there,” says Vinh, a surgeon and father of three from Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Someone or a lot of people had exploited her and had done horrific things that I was afraid to even imagine.” He rushed to another room to let his tears flow. His wife, Leisle, had seen him cry only once before. She stayed, fighting back her own emotions.
In order to truly help someone, we need to have our hearts broken.—Vinh Chung
The Chungs traveled to Cambodia in November 2012 to see World Vision’s child protection work firsthand — including the trauma recovery center where girls come to heal after being subjected to sexual exploitation — and to follow God’s leading on what they could do to protect exploited children.
Vinh is no stranger to suffering. When he was 3 years old, he escaped death in a small boat on the South China Sea. World Vision saved him at one point, and now he’s working with the organization to help other children in dire circumstances.
Vinh’s family was among the thousands who fled communist Vietnam by boat in the late 1970s. He, nine immediate and eight extended relatives, and 75 others were crammed into a boat, hoping to find safe haven in another country. They reached Malaysia but were turned away. They were left floating aimlessly, waiting to die.
God had another plan. Launching a daring program called Operation Seasweep, World Vision scoured the waters to help stranded refugees, including those on the Chungs’ boat. Vinh’s family made it to Singapore and, three months later, immigrated to Fort Smith, Arkansas. They soon came to know Christ through a local church’s Vietnamese ministry.
“I am amazed at the different people God has placed in my life at different critical points,” Vinh says.
Vinh and Leisle met in high school at a summer program — her family had immigrated to the U.S. from Korea when she was 1, moved around, and settled into another rural Arkansas community when she was 4. They attended separate Ivy League colleges, but the relationship grew. They married in 1998.
While Vinh prepared for his future medical career, he also began to explore his past, putting substance to his vague childhood memories. He learned World Vision was the organization that had rescued his family years before.
Vinh became more curious about his homeland, so in 2002 he and Leisle visited Vietnam to meet his extended family. The relatives, who tried unsuccessfully to escape at the same time as Vinh, shared details of a difficult life after their boat drifted back to Vietnam. “I felt like there was such unfairness in this world,” Leisle says. “I happen to be in circumstances where you can work hard and it pays off. They were just stuck.”
Vinh realized how different his life could have been. He says, “It was almost as if God was speaking to me in that moment when I was in Vietnam, as if to say, ‘Vinh, have you done everything you can with what you have? Now that you can see with your own eyes and feel and touch this other world that could have been yours, what are your plans for the future?’”
Answering God’s call
Vinh finished medical training and started a private practice. He and Leisle had always tithed, even while Vinh was in medical school. But now, as their income escalated, the couple resolved to donate extra money to a Christian organization with international work. They decided on World Vision — in part because of Vinh’s past, but also because Leisle’s research showed that the work was effective.
Their giving grew, and last year Vinh and Leisle got involved with World Vision’s Campaign For Every Child. They were invited to Cambodia to visit World Vision’s trauma recovery center and see how their donations are used to help children rescued from trafficking.
Vinh didn’t want to go.
“I knew that the poverty I’ve spent my entire life trying to escape, I would have to re-enter and experience it again. I knew that would be traumatic and difficult to handle,” he says.
But he knew he needed to go. When the couple arrived in Cambodia, neither was fully prepared for what they would encounter.
During one lunch with the girls at the center, an 8-year-old held Leisle’s hand, joked with her, and shared stories. “I think about that as the moment I fell in love,” says Leisle. “Up to that point, we’d always been passionate about World Vision and were so inspired to do what we’re doing, but that’s the moment that I just loved these girls and it became personal.”
For Vinh, meeting girls who had been put through such trauma broke his heart. He was used to seeing pain and suffering in his surgical work, but this was different. “The suffering was a deliberate, evil crime that was committed by another person,” he says.
He realized people alone cannot solve the issues of child exploitation. “We need God in this fight against poverty because it’s not fighting against drought or against any type of natural disaster, but it is a fight against the evil that humanity can commit.
The Chungs returned home changed.
“In order to truly help someone, we need to have our hearts broken,” Vinh says. He paraphrases World Vision founder Bob Pierce’s prayer: “Pray that God will break our hearts with what breaks his. It sounds good, but it’s really something altogether different when you experience a broken heart.”
Now their work seems more important than ever. “[The trip] gives us a renewed commitment,” Leisle says. “You feel such urgency about the work that’s being done.”
She says the work they do is not charity but an investment — “an investment in the world, and we want to see things change, and we believe things can change.”
Vinh and Leisle are sharing their experiences with their community, including other medical professionals, and urging them to get involved. Vinh also convinced Leisle, who says she’s never run more than a mile, to help organize and run a half and full marathon as part of Team World Vision.
To learn Vinh’s full story, read his book, Where the Wind Leads, published by Thomas Nelson.