By Mark Ellis
As a teenager he left the hopelessness of Buddhism for the power of black magic, then American missionaries demonstrated the amazing power of the God they served, which made his 3,300 gods seem impotent. After receiving Christ, he entered into a new battle with communist authorities for the soul of the Vietnamese people—a battle still raging today.
“I grew up in a very strong Buddhist family,” says Pastor Tran Dinh “Paul” Ai, founder of Vision Outreach International Ministries. “I was sent to a Buddhist temple and trained to be a Buddhist monk,” he says. “My father was a very successful Chinese medical doctor, but he was bothered by politicians who tried to extort money from him.”
“He vowed if he had a son he would send him to the temple so he could be trained as a monk,” Ai says. “My name in Vietnamese means ‘Stop loving the world.’”
At age 15, after only a year of study, he became disenchanted with the “hopelessness of Buddhist doctrines.”
Seeking a more powerful religious experience, he journeyed to the dark side. “I went to study black magic and became a witchcraft doctor, serving 3,366 gods,” Ai says. “They gave me power, but they made me bow my life to their strongholds,” he says. “They also made me hate the gospel.”
In 1970, as President Nixon sent American troops into Cambodia from Vietnam, causing mounting protests on U.S. college campuses, American missionaries entered Ai’s town in South Vietnam. “A lot of people in my town went to the crusades and met the Lord,” Ai says. “Some of my black magic students came to me and said, ‘Master, you must stop this crusade, otherwise we will lose all our customers in this town,” he recalls. “So I went to the crusade the following day to check it out.”
Ai expected to find the missionaries performing “religious activities,” but was surprised to find them singing songs, reading the Bible, and giving a simple message. “They said, ‘We don’t want to bring to Vietnam a new religion, because all religions will make you more and more burdened. But Jesus promised if you bring your heavy burdens to him he will give you rest.’”
Opposing American missionaries
This message was grating to Ai, and he frantically sought some way to stymie their efforts, afraid the townspeople would no longer need his services. To his chagrin, many in the area were being saved, and offering testimonies of answered prayers.
Ai turned to his demonic hosts. “I called up 1,000 gods at that first night, but at the end of the service I realized my gods were not showing up to do their job,” he says. “The next evening I called up 2,000 gods, but nothing happened.” He went home to fast and pray to his 3,366 gods.
“I said you have to wake up and show up and shut down this crusade,” Ai says. ‘I prayed to all 3,366 but none of them showed up,” he says.
Suddenly a dawning realization swept through his mind. “I realized that Buddha was a good man who was wise, but Buddha died. He never promised to save anybody or help anybody,” he says. “Then I realized Jesus Christ is different. He is not only good and wise, he rose and he’s alive!” At that moment, as Ai recognized the futility of his previous religious path, he surrendered to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
“I gave my heart to the Lord, and God saved my life and set me free and called me into ministry,” Ai says. Shortly after this, ‘Tran Dinh’ received a new name. “After I got saved, they told me, ‘Brother Ai, there was a man in the Bible exactly like you. He was so religious and he hated the gospel and he persecuted the church. His name was Saul but finally God got a hold of his life and his name was changed to Paul.’”
Tran Dinh accepted their advice and took the name of Paul. “One month later when I read through the Bible I said, ‘Uh-oh, they gave me the wrong name. Paul is a man who went to prison after prison, and I don’t want to be in prison like Paul.’”
Despite his misgivings, the new name stuck. “I was resented by the community and I was disowned by my family, but the church accepted me and discipled me,” he says. Ai’s family forced him to move out of their home.
Looking back, Ai is thankful his family kicked him out, because this provided the impetus for him to attend Bible school. In April 1975, only two days before the U.S. evacuated Saigon and the entire nation fell to the communists, Pastor Ai was ordained.
Fleeing the communists
Pastor Ai’s immediate impulse after the fall of Saigon was to join the flood of his compatriots fleeing the communists by any means possible. “All our leadership got together to seek the Lord, and they decided we had better get out of the country before the communists threw us in prison,” he says. “So we all decided to leave and got on a boat.”
“But when I got on the boat the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, ‘What are you doing on this boat? Stop loving the world. Do you want to be a Jonah?’
“It was strong enough to scare me,” Pastor Ai recalls. His friends on the boat noticed Ai was sweating profusely.
“Brother Ai, what happened to you?” they asked.
“I just heard a word from the Lord,” he told them.
“We need a word from the Lord because we’re about to make a very dangerous journey on the ocean,” they said.
“God just asked me if I want to be the Jonah of this boat.”
“What?” they cried in unison. “Get out of the boat—we don’t want to have Jonah with us.”
Pastor Ai was forced off the boat. “I was so stupid, I thought, I shouldn’t have told them that.” Unsure of what to expect, he made his way back to his church. “The following day I was arrested by the communists and sent to a forced labor camp,” Ai recalls.
He would spend more than ten years in these camps as the communists attempted to reeducate him. “Communism is a religion,” he says. “They compete with other religions.”
“It was terrible,” Ai says. “I tell Americans you don’t have prisons here in America, you have free hotels,” he says. “In America the prisons have air conditioning, heat, internet access and cable TV.
“In Vietnam there was nothing like this,” Ai says. “I slept on a floor that was either dirt or cement,” he says. “Sometimes they don’t give you food to eat so I have to go out in the jungle to find leaves to eat.” Ai and his fellow prisoners worked 10-12 hour days doing backbreaking agricultural work: harvesting potatoes, cashew nuts, and rubber plants.
During his first five-year term he had no toothbrush, soap, or other personal items. “After I was released from prison, I packed a bag with a toothbrush, soap, towel, and underwear in it for the next time that the police came to arrest me. I carried this bag with me everywhere I went, and it stayed next to me when I slept at night.”
In 1980 he was released from his first of eight terms in prison, and married Ruth Kim-Lan, a former high school teacher. She became disenchanted with teaching after the communists “tried to change the children’s minds from believing in creation to evolution.” She felt called to ministry so she could “teach the children about God and his creation.”
Despite persecution by the authorities, Ai continued his efforts to plant house churches, planting 24 new churches from 1988 to 1990. One day he was picked up by the authorities and brought to the police station, where he was warned to stop planting churches.
Ai considered their threats carefully, but tried to explain he had received a calling from God. “The water buffalo was made to plow the field,” he said, “the horse was made to pull the cart, and the preacher was made to preach the Gospel.”
His reply made them burn. “If you will not stop, you will be back in these camps,” they warned.
“You do your job and I’ll do mine,” Pastor Ai replied. About a month later, Ai was followed by the police and
arrested as he reached his home. He was sent back to prison, but this time he had the backpack with him containing his personal effects.
His backpack did not remain intact for long. “In prison the guards cut the straps, a standard practice because of fear of hanging,” Ai recalls. “There was a wild man in the prison they called ‘Scissor.’ He was a tailor and he carried scissors with him all the time as a weapon. He killed many people both in and out of prison.
“Everyone in prison was afraid of him, including the guards,” he adds. “He used metal cans and cut the metal to make himself a breastplate to keep people from stabbing him to death.”
But Pastor Ai began to pray that God would soften this desperate man. “I began to share the love of Jesus with him and told him how Jesus would give him peace and be his friend,” Ai recalls. “As I continued to show him friendship and God’s grace, he gave his heart to the Lord.”
“As an expression of gratitude, he used one of his shirts to fix my backpack and make me a hat for protection from the sun,” Ai says, knowing he was violating camp rules.
“If the police ask you where you got these,” Scissor told him, “just tell them they are from me and you will be safe.”
Pastor Ai had found an unusual guardian in the camp. “The Lord used Scissor to provide for me not only my backpack and hat but also protection and many other things I needed in prison.”
“The authorities thought if they put him in prison, the church would stop growing and be destroyed,” writes Johnny Thinh, a friend and co-laborer of Pastor Ai’s. “But they were wrong, because Jesus himself is still the head of the church, and even the gates of hell shall not prevail against His church.
“Wherever they moved Pastor Paul Ai, new churches appeared,” he adds. By the end of 1997, Pastor Ai’s denomination had over 15,000 members in 175 congregations, all of them home churches, based on the cell group system Pastor Ai learned from studying church growth in Korea, China and other nations, according to Thinh.
In 1999, Pastor Ai was arrested in Hanoi and sentenced to a five-year term. “They tried to kill me, but God used a former State Department official, acting as an ambassador-at-large, along with pressure from the U.N., to win my release. They expelled me—kicked me out of the country,” he says. “I left by Christmas 1999.”
Now Pastor Ai’s focus is on reaching Vietnamese expatriates in a host of countries. “There are 2.2 million living in the U.S. and almost 3.0 million living around the world,” he says. “I want to reach the Vietnamese overseas and disciple them so they can go back to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to their families and communities.”
“Some day God will open Vietnam just like He did in the Soviet Union,” Pastor Ai says. “The underground church is really growing. My job right now is to prepare and train disciples for that day.”
“We want to bring believers back to Vietnam—not with M16 rifles, but with John 3:16 Bibles,” he says.