When Minh Phuong Towner learned that her pastor at Vienna (Va.) Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Peter G. “Pete” James, was planning to use her story to illustrate the topic of happiness in a book he is writing, she was humbled and not just a little surprised.
For the Vietnam native — who in 1968 had witnessed the murder of her father and two of her siblings and later survived internment in a Communist prison camp along with her younger brother — seeing herself through “Pastor Pete’s” eyes as an embodiment of happiness would have at one time been unthinkable, but for the grace and mercy of God.
“He told me, ‘The happiness in you is so contagious, that’s how we should be when we serve the Lord,’” Towner recalled.
Raised a Roman Catholic in Vietnam, Towner experienced a profound crisis of faith through the loss of her family, home, possessions and her subsequent captivity following the fall of Saigon in 1975. After two failed attempts to escape Vietnam, she and her brother were sent to a prison camp, where they were separated from each other. One night in her prison cell — after first asking her cellmate whether she believed in God — Towner fell on her knees and prayed to God for a sign to keep her faith going.
“I looked up in the sky through a tiny barred window of my prison cell,” she remembered. “Here it was, a tiny star shining brightly in the dark pitch sky. I burst out crying with joy and thanksgiving, knowing God answered my prayer. My brother and I were able to escape from the prison cell. It was a miracle and it was only through God’s mercy we were alive.”
Her journey as a refugee led her first to Australia, where she found work as a nurse practitioner, was married and raised two children. Having “given up church” when she left Vietnam, Towner first felt a longing to return when her daughter was two years old. It was through the invitation of a hospital colleague that she was introduced to a Presbyterian Church, which she later joined.
After 25 years in Australia — during which time her marriage foundered and ended due, in part, to her post-traumatic stress disorder — Towner sensed that God was calling her to live closer to her adult daughter, who had moved to North Carolina.
“God opened a door for me to interview for a nursing position and get my license in the United States,” she said. “God told me, ‘Come to Virginia, and I will give you a home.’”
Soon after she moved to Fairfax, Va., in 2006, she met her future husband, Paul. Both became active members of the Vienna church, where Towner was frequently called upon to share her testimony, both at her home congregation and at other churches in National Capital Presbytery.
Today, with the continued prayers and encouragement of her pastor and congregation, Towner is discerning a call to ministry and is now a first-year student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Through her recent participation in the Vietnam Mission Network, resourced by Michael Parker in the World Mission ministry area, and the annual Racial Ethnic Seminarians Conference, coordinated by Jewel McRae in the denomination’s Office of Vocation, she has “felt supported and loved by the PC(USA)” and has already seen a vision of how God is calling her to be a Presbyterian pastor in her adopted homeland.
Towner first learned about the Racial Ethnic Seminarians Conference through John Welch, Pittsburgh Seminary’s dean of students. She welcomed it as “a God-given opportunity to better understand this country’s issues,” especially as they affect the African-American community.
“I prayed for a chance to learn more about the struggle of African Americans, which this conference gave me,” Towner said. “If I stay in this country, I know that God is calling me for the minority groups and to work toward greater diversity.”
The annual conference — which has been sponsored continuously for the past 32 years by the General Assembly Mission Council and in the past two years jointly with the Office of the General Assembly — offers up to two students annually from each of 10 Presbyterian theological institutions and two Presbyterian-related seminaries an opportunity to build a support base, to learn how to meet the national and regional requirements of the preparation for ministry process, to share learnings and experiences about seminary life and to maintain an informed sensitivity to racial ethnic issues and concerns in the church.
All conference expenses — including transportation, room and board — are covered in full for each seminarian through the Sidney and Lillian Harris Fund, which remains open to ongoing gifts through an Extra Commitment Opportunity.
Towner was among 28 seminarians who attended this year’s event, held at the Marywood Center for Spirituality and Ministry in St. Johns, FL. The Rev. Paul Hooker, executive presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of St. Augustine, who was invited to participate in the group’s worship, spoke of his joy in seeing such diversity.
“The conference was an amazing and uplifting experience for all involved, from the participants to the workshop leaders,” said McRae, associate for Racial Ethnic Referrals & Matching in the PC(USA)’s Church Leadership Connection office. “It filled my heart with hope for the future to see the participants’ dedication and commitment. They left the conference feeling renewed and with a keener understanding of their call and purpose for ministry.”
Towner described the event as transformational. “The whole concept and the content were brilliant,” she said. “What I took from the conference fit in with my picture of God’s Kingdom. God wants us to work together across the nations and across the races. The conference reaffirmed for me that this is how God wants us to carry out His work.”
“One In the Spirit” is a monthly email from General Assembly Mission Council Executive Director Linda Valentine strengthening community between the GAMC and the PC(USA)’s middle governing bodies.