Jul 15, 2013
What do Gerald R. Ford, Vietnam, and Bethany have in common? It’s an appropriate question to help us commemorate what would have been the former president’s 100th birthday on Sunday, July 14.
When President Ford stepped in to lead our nation after Richard Nixon resigned from office, he inherited a rapidly-deteriorating war effort in Vietnam. As the communist Vietcong and North Vietnamese army pushed into U.S.-backed South Vietnam, defeat loomed over the landscape. Grand Rapids native President Ford announced that the U.S. government would begin evacuating orphans from Saigon on a series of thirty planned flights aboard C-5A Galaxy cargo aircraft. Known as Operation Babylift, this humanitarian effort, along with Operation New Life, brought approximately 30,000 children and 110,000 Vietnamese refugees to the United States.
About this time, a Grand Rapids pastor, Howard Schipper and his wife, Marybelle, were attending a conference led by Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Schuller challenged the pastors to “find a need and fill it.” On their return flight to Grand Rapids, Schipper noticed a Vietnamese group escorted by Catholic sisters to Boston where they would be resettled. He knew that the government predicted more than 100,000 refugees would soon be coming to the United States and thought, “How easy. There’s more than enough room in America. Here’s a large need, let’s fill it.”
Once back in Grand Rapids, Howard went to work contacting the State Department, area churches, and even President Ford himself through an acquaintance who knew the president personally. The response from everyone was the same: let’s do this!
Once it was clear that Grand Rapids would soon be receiving orphans and families, Schipper also contacted area social service agencies, including Bethany. As a result, on June 28, 1975, Bethany received its first child from Vietnam. Over the next six months, Bethany received twenty-one children, placing them in adoptive families or foster care thanks to the response from area church families.
Our response to President Ford’s compassionate efforts to rescue orphans and families from Vietnam led to what is now a comprehensive Refugee Services program. Through our Grand Rapids office, we currently we serve 190 unaccompanied minors in refugee foster care and have resettled 300 refugee families and individuals, according to Dona Abbott, director of Refugee Services. Working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and faith-based referral organizations, we provide foster care for children who face persecution in their home country due to race, religion, or political affiliation. These young people primarily come from Central America and Africa. Recently we received reports that several hundred will soon be arriving from the Congo, victims of the brutal tribal rivalries.
The need for foster care for these young refugees is greater than our current capacity to provide families for them. What a better way to say “Happy Birthday” to President Ford and continue his legacy than to open your hearts and homes to children needing safety after fleeing their homeland.
If you would like to find out how you, or your church, could help refugees, contact us at 1.800.BETHANY.
 Gordon L. Olson, project director and editor, Flight to Freedom: The Story of the Vietnamese of West Michigan (Grand Rapids Historical Commission, 2004).