by Michelle Layer Rahal
One woman’s journey
from oppression to redemption
in the wake of the Vietnam War
Welcome, Michelle! What an interesting title. In what genre is Straining Forward?
It is a Christian Memoir, the story of Minh Phuong Towner.
Please, tell us a little about it.
Minh watched in horror as the Vietcong gunned down her family and two younger siblings in the backyard. Though she escaped death that night, abuse, prison, and torture would follow. Her childhood tragedy would lead Minh to question God’s very existence. Straining Forward is a riveting spiritual journey of hope and healing that reminds us that even in our darkest moments, we are never truly alone.
Sounds like Minh has quite a story.
At age 12, Minh Phuong’s life of privilege was reduced to ashes as her home burned to the ground during the Tet Offensive. Sent to live with her mentally abusive grandfather, Minh is physically abused by an uncle and steered toward prostitution by an aunt. When Saigon falls five years later, Minh and a younger brother seek to escape Vietnam by boat.
A childhood fraught with injustice, pain, and oppression takes its toll and plunges Minh into a deep depression. But God had plans for Minh’s life and was not willing to leave her in the dark. As Minh begins to seek professional and spiritual help, she is presented with a series of opportunities that allows her to heal and forgive.
After working for more than a decade as an oncology nurse in Australia, Minh enrolled in seminary school in the United States to secure a Master of Divinity degree. Her ordination in 2013 made her the third Asian woman in America to be ordained as a Presbyterian pastor. She now serves as a chaplain helping families cope with end-of-life decisions.
How did you come to write her story?
God placed the writing of this book on my heart after I heard Minh give a short testimony one Sunday morning about how God graced her life. Minh was not eager to share further details until God placed it on her heart several years later that it was time for her to write her story. It took five years of interviews, research, and writing to bring this book to fruition.
As I wrote in the introduction of Straining Forward, it is my hope that God will use this book to encourage readers to come alongside the marginalized people in their communities, particularly refugees and the homeless, in order to understand injustice and experience the grace of God.
Who do you think will benefit from reading this book?
First, anyone who is looking for hope in a dark world would benefit from reading this book. Second, it sheds light on the plight of refugees, children of war, and the effects of PTSD. Third, and most important, Straining Forward demonstrates that God is present in pain and suffering.
Excerpt from Chapter 4 of Straining Forward
Without saying another word, my mother pushed us forward, out of the yard and toward the road. I turned one last time to look at what remained of my home. It was engulfed in flames, a mere shell of its former glory. And somewhere in that wreckage were the lifeless bodies of my beloved father, my little brother, and my only sister. I watched as all my treasures and memories savagely went up in smoke.
Directly across the street from our house was a beautiful botanical garden. It had been a magical place on warm afternoons, and we were privileged to have such direct access to it. With war raging all around us, I believe my mother thought the gardens would be the perfect place to take refuge. We soon learned that there is no sanctuary in war.
Ahead of me was a sea of dead bodies. Mom, whose strongest quality was giving directions, told us to step on them and get to the garden. Vietnamese culture teaches us to respect the dead, so this order conflicted me. I tried my best not to step on anyone, but that was impossible—there were so many bodies! Each time I placed my foot on one, I apologized. “I am so sorry,” I would say. I was sure these people would one day come back to haunt me for my disrespectful actions.
As we approached the perimeter of the gardens, gunshots that were too close for comfort rang out. Mom pushed us to the ground, and together we crawled behind a tree for protection. Several minutes passed before two American MPs came crawling toward us. One of the MPs was black. I had never been so close to a black person before, and I was surprised by how white his teeth were in the morning light. This man saw that I was bleeding from my head and asked my mother for permission to check my skull. She nodded her approval. I held very still while he inspected the source of my bleeding.
The MP told my mother that I had been shot and that I needed medical attention. Because he spoke in English, my mother had to translate what was being said. I was surprised to learn that a bullet had grazed my skull; I did not feel a thing. The MP asked my mother if he could take me back to some vehicle where there were medical supplies. When my mother told me to go with the MP, I responded, “Con không đi đâu với người da đen này!” (I am NOT going anywhere with this black man!)
Luckily, the MP did not speak Vietnamese and, therefore, was not offended by my racial response. However, when he realized that I had no intention of going anywhere with him, he pulled a bandage roll out of his bag and wrapped my head as best he could under the circumstances. Then he told us to follow him, and together we crawled out of the garden and away from sniper fire.
Today when I think of this MP’s face, I see an angel of God. He appeared at dawn in the smoke of disaster, bandaged my wounds, and led us to safety. He could have ignored us. Instead, he chose to have compassion on a Vietnamese widow and her young children. I never learned his name, but he played a significant role in my life, for I am sure that I would have bled to death had he not attended to my wound.
About the Author
Michelle Layer Rahal served as the youth and family ministry director of her church before devoting herself fulltime to writing for God’s kingdom purposes. She continues to lead women, students, and the homeless in spiritual formation through weekly Bible studies and annual retreats. The Indie-award winning author of Straining Forward, Michelle publishes regularly on her blog about perseverance and hope. She is a published educational consultant and former news radio journalist who holds an undergraduate degree in Theater Arts and a graduate degree in Education. Michelle lives in the Washington, DC area with her fun-loving husband, Greg.
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