“We've seen a lot of reality TV over the last five years or so,” says Todd Nettleton, spokesperson for The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM). “Well, this is the ultimate reality -- the reality of life and death for Christians in Vietnam. It's the reality of Christians paying the price to live out their convictions and serve God.”
The idea for a DVD was generated as VOM staff wrestled with how to present the reality of persecution to an American audience. "Many Americans think persecution existed in the book of Acts, then it stopped." Nettleton says. "But it is still going on all the time. This DVD serves as a way of confronting the American church with the daily reality of our brothers and sisters in restricted nations."
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) listed Vietnam in its May 2007 report as a “Country of Particular Concern” regarding religious freedom. According to Tears of the Oppressed, an Australian Christian human rights organization, although Vietnam has a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, the State has a range of decrees and laws in place to control religious activities and detain religious leaders. Christianity is incompatible with the Marxist/Communist political ideology of Vietnam, which denies the existence of God, and so Vietnamese authorities go to great lengths to suppress and hinder Christian activities.
"The Vietnamese government wants people to be Communists first and Christians second," Nettleton explains. "But the people we filmed say they are Christians first and everything else comes after that." The government allows some Christian meetings but they are closely monitored and watched. These groups are subject to having the police raid their services or having people arrested and locked up. In some cases, they are even attacked physically.
One of the things that happened right before the VOM group travelled to Vietnam is that a house church was torn down by the government. "The people came in swinging clubs and some of the Christians were roughed up pretty badly," says Nettleton. "That’s the reality for Christians in Vietnam – that’s what we wanted to capture on the DVD -- what it is like for an American Christian teenager to come face to face with that type of reality."
Bethany, one of the teens who made the trip, admits she was shaken by the reality she experienced. "When I went to Vietnam, everything got shaken up,” says Bethany. “One day I interviewed a girl we called Esther. This was my greatest moment in Vietnam. Her dad was the first Christian in their village. When he started having services in their house, the police asked him to come to meet them."
Looking at the floor, the Vietnamese girl told Bethany, "I never saw him again or heard about him for three years."
All of a sudden, says Bethany, "it hit me and I began crying too. I thought, 'She is 16 and living without her dad who is suffering in prison.' I talk to my own dad four or five times a day. He always says to me, 'I am praying for you. I love you.' I do not know how I could go on without him."
Bethany asked Esther, "How do you do it? How are you not angry at God? How can you be the backbone in your family?’’ The girl answered, "God has moved and filled the void in my life when my father was imprisoned. God is my heavenly Father—the only Father that I need."
During their visit, the teens also interviewed a pastor whose house church has been repeatedly torn down by the police and were even forced to flee from a Christian youth camp when police suddenly arrived. No one was hurt, but the experience brought home vividly the danger of standing for Christ in Vietnam.
VOM carefully considered the safety issue before the project started and students were selected. "Because of the amount of trade going on between the United States and Vietnam," Nettleton explains, "it seemed very unlikely that the students would be arrested or held for any amount of time, although there was the potential they could be blacklisted and put on a plane out of the country. But we felt the risk was less in Vietnam than it might have been in other countries."
During the trip, says Nettleton, each of the teens had to wrestle with his or her own faith and what it means to follow Christ. The film shows one of the girls saying, “I don’t know if I would keep going to church and keep following Christ if people were sticking a gun in my face and threatening to kill me." At different times during the trip, all of the students had to answer the question: "What would I do?”
That’s really a crucial question for all Christians to ask, Nettleton says, but particularly for these young people, who are at the beginning of their lives and at the beginning of walking with Christ. "It's a powerful and important question and the answer to it can be life changing."
Nettleton says he thinks every Christian should wrestle with such questions: "What would I do if they closed down my church? What would I do if someone put a gun in my face?" These are questions that Underground Reality: Vietnam presents – up close and personal. "It forces you to think about what the answers are for you," he adds. "That can only strengthen the faith, not only of American teenagers, but of American adults."