Missionaries in Vietnam, as a war quickly approached

By March 1965, Rev. Orrel and Gini Steinkamp and their small children had been serving as missionaries in Da Nang, South Vietnam for going-on three years. “I had heard on the short-wave radio that a bunch of Marines were heading to Vietnam,” Orrel Steinkamp related.” That same morning, a Vietnamese man had asked the missionary pastor to take his child to the cemetery for burial. As the small funeral procession headed toward the cemetery (which was located right beside the South China Sea), they noticed a lot of military trucks traveling that same road, as well as wreaths and signs along the way proclaiming (in the Vietnamese language) “welcome Marines.” “There was a U.S. Marine standing alongside the road,” Steinkamp said, “and I said ‘Hi. I’m an American. What are you doing here?’” (He noted that his greeting received a surprised stare and a cursory check of the perimeter from the Marine, but little else.) As is the tradition in Vietnam, the grave is dug by the deceased’s family when the procession gets to the cemetery. Steinkamp’s group reached the cemetery and went about the business of burying the child’s body. “A bunch of what we call four-wheelers today would come up the hill, divide and go around us,” Steinkamp said. “And there were choppers flying overhead. “So I went up to the top of the hill between the cemetery and the ocean, looked over the hill and here the Marines were hitting the beach. “You can say,” he grinned, “that when the first Americans hit the beach, your trusty missionary was there to greet them.” A few months later, with U.S. troops firmly settled in South Vietnam, the Steinkamp family was invited to the local USO where “we have American ice cream.” There Steinkamp recognized the Marine he had first met on the road to the cemetery. “I asked him why he didn’t say ‘hi’ when we first met,” he said. “The Marine told me that they were told that anyone who spoke English in Vietnam would be French nationals.” That particular piece of information provided to the U.S. Marines before they arrived in Vietnam was slightly inaccurate. When the Steinkamps first arrived in Vietnam they were two of 150 missionaries serving there. But it’s a very long way from Minnesota to Vietnam – just how did this farm boy from Middle Creek (that tiny settlement between Danube and Redwood Falls) get to DaNang, Vietnam? After Steinkamp graduated from Danube High School in 1952 and began contemplating his future, he considered using the basketball scholarship he’d been awarded to attended college but elected to remain on the farm for a time. Ultimately, however, he realized that God was calling him to go and he enrolled at St. Paul Bible College. “I was a little farm boy and came in the middle of the year,” he related. “I literally didn’t know where the classes were.” Steinkamp had particular trouble getting to his “Western Civ” class but found there was always a seat available next to one of the nursing students. “I found out later that Gini would put her books on the seat to save it for me,” he said, smiling. That pair of Western Civ students soon became a couple, married, and began to prepare for the mission field. “I thought that we would go to Africa,” Steinkamp said. “A missionary named Ray Cook used to come to the Middle Creek church with his black and white slides of Africa – and Gini’s parents were close friends with missionaries from the Ivory Coast. “We met with the missionary call committee and said we wanted to go to Africa, but they said ‘we think you will fit in Vietnam’.” So, in 1962, with their three-year-old daughter, Heidi, and three-month-old son, Joel, the Steinkamps headed for Vietnam. “Until they went to school at the age of six, the kids were with us all the time,” Steinkamp explained. “They played with the Vietnamese kids all the time and, of course, learned the Vietnamese language better than we did,” he smiled. Before leaving for Vietnam, the elder Steinkamps had language lessons but, as Steinkamp explained, the Vietnamese language is not easy to master. “The word for God is three little words,” he demonstrated, “a rising tone and two falling tones. If you get the tones wrong you can change ‘Buddest pagoda’ to ‘Lord of the Skies’.” Steinkamp did master the language as the last year-and-a-half of their first term in Vietnam, he was put in charge of translating and putting hymnbooks and study materials into the Vietnamese language. Following their first five-year term in the mission field, the family returned to Minnesota and Steinkamp studied for his Masters of Divinity at Bethel Seminary. Upon their return to Vietnam in 1969, Steinkamp taught at the Vietnamese seminary – which overlooked the South China Sea. “The chaplains liked to bring out the G.I.s,” Steinkamp said. “We had all-day retreats for the soldiers and Gini would serve up homemade American food. “We had a lot of good times.” His seminary students consisted of both under-graduates and graduate students; he taught both Greek and Hebrew to the graduate students. “They were some of the best students I had,” he said. “A number of them ended up in the States and received their doctorates here.” The Steinkamps also headed back to “the States” where he taught at Crown College (the former St. Paul Bible College, his alma mater) for a year before returning to Vietnam, in 1973, for what would turn out to be their last term there. “By 1975 we were noticing that there was a huge build-up of C.I.A. people,” Steinkamp related. “Then the country fell. “Wycliff (Bible Translators) were in town and all of a sudden – boom, they were out of there. Myself and another missionary were the only ones left.” Steinkamp had contact with an operative in the Vietnamese army who came out of the jungle every day at 3 p.m. to tell the missionary what was happening in the interior. “There was a pass that the Vietnamese army was holding,” Steinkamp said. “One day my friend came at 3 p.m. and said ‘they just broke through – it’s two days until they’ll be here’. “I went to town to the C.I.A. guy and, well, he didn’t know about it (the North Vietnamese army being on the way), but ‘be here tomorrow so we can get out secretly’.” The missionaries were told they could take everything they could fit into a satchel. The satchel, however, measured about one cubic foot in packing space. The Steinkamps chose to take their wedding pictures and a few other irreplaceable items and left, literally, with just the clothes on their backs. “That was hard,” he said. A seminary student caught up to the Steinkamps in Saigon a few days later. “He told me that after we left the Viet Cong came and wanted to know where we were. They were very upset that we had gotten away,” Steinkamp said. “The Viet Cong camped at our house, butchered our dogs and had a dog feast.” The Steinkamps were able to get out of Saigon just a few days before the entire city fell to the communist forces. (Some of the very last missionaries to leave had to be airlifted from the top of the United States Embassy.) The Steinkamps flew to Penang, Malaysia where their three children – who where by then teenagers – attended boarding school. “Our kids didn’t know what was going on with us,” Steinkamp said. “But the entire school was holding prayer meetings for the missionaries in Vietnam.” As the saying goes, “when God closes a door he opens another;” the Steinkamps were soon on their way to another mission field – this time in Australia. After their term there, they returned to Minnesota and settled on the family farm where they offered a retreat center for Bible study and published “The Plumbline” newsletter. Several local communities take claim to the Steinkamps.  Between mission terms they, at various times, operated a branch of Eastern Gate Bookstore in Redwood Falls, pastored the New Avon and Salem Methodist churches south of Redwood Falls and east of Wabasso, were involved with  the Alliance Church in Echo, and – for 14 years – pastored the Assembly of God Church in Redwood Falls. Steinkamp also returned to Vietnam once more – this time to teach a four-week course in interpreting the Bible to the Vietnamese church leaders. This was, remember, after South Vietnam fell to the communists. “There were 25 or 30 church leaders in the back room of a banquet hall and Boom! The doors break open,” Steinkamp said. It was the secret police. They demanded identification cards from the Vietnamese men and insisted that Steinkamp hand over his passport. As the document was in his hotel’s safe, the authorities took Steinkamp to his hotel and so that he could hand over his passport. The next day he reported, as ordered, for interrogation. “It was just an amazing thing,” he mused. “They were supposed to know English to interrogate me. But their English was terrible.” The interrogation went on for an hour, with a senior official coming into the room periodically to tell the interrogators what to ask. Steinkamp, remember, is fluent in Vietnamese. “I’d be thinking how to answer truthfully, but evasively.” In the end, Steinkamp did not reveal any potentially harmful information, but the authorities did try to hold his well-used, duct-taped, MacArthur Study Bible for bribe money. Finally convincing the gentleman that the money demanded was not going to materialize,” Steinkamp’s Bible was returned to him. “When I got back to the hotel, I found a Vietnamese Christian friend who read English well and asked ‘can you use this MacArthur Bible?’ “A year or so later I told that story at Echo and afterwards an older lady said, ‘come visit me.’ He did so and the woman pulled beautiful cowhide leather MacArthur Study Bible off a bookshelf. “You need to have this back,” she told Steinkamp. Somewhat retired, Steinkamp continues to publish “The Plumbline,” although now without the aid of his original helpmate. “On February 28, 2005 my wife suddenly left me,” he said, “not for another man, but for heaven.” God always takes care of his own, Steinkamp will attest. In 2007, he and a former Danube classmate, Georgiann Goetzman, were married. The couple spends a good deal of their time in Willmar where, among other family members, Steinkamp’s daughter Heidi and her husband, Tom Burton reside. Son Joe,  his wife Mia, son Karl and his wife Jacki all live in Penang, Malaysia. Karl is the director at the school he and his siblings attended and Joel is a teacher there.

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