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The power of the Word

A Christian drug rehab center in Vietnam is helping addicts get clean—and the government is noticing

The power of the Word

Former addict Samuel Vu reading the Bible at the Aquila Rehab Center (June Cheng)

International Winner: Aquila Rehab Center

Vietnamese flags wave from houses on either side of a newly paved road 27 miles outside Hanoi. Past a small lake stands the Aquila Rehab Center, a Christian drug rehab center with several buildings, a garden, dirt clearings, and a spectacular view of leafy trees, grassy fields, and verdant mountains cloaked in mist.

In the covered courtyard, two dozen men gather around a mobile pull-up bar, challenging each other to do 30 pull-ups. Others are waking from afternoon naps, reading their Bibles on their bunk beds, or chatting. One drug addict, who arrived the day before from Australia, sits in a daze as the pastor speaks with him. Still others mop the floors or take care of bonsai trees in the garden.

Amid this activity, the Aquila Center is accomplishing something the Vietnamese government can’t: helping drug addicts get off drugs—and stay off. The founder, Pastor Nam Quoc Trung, was an addict himself who through Christ found both salvation and freedom from his 16-year addiction. The center currently houses 60 men and 30 women. Despite serious trials, including the destruction of the original center, death threats, and the continued inability to register legally, the Aquila Center has helped more than 100 addicts leave behind a life of drugs. Its success has even the government asking for advice on reforming addicts.

June Cheng

Trung (June Cheng)

Trung, the son of a high-ranking government official in Hanoi, is a serious-looking man with jet-black hair and the suave air of a race car driver. He started using drugs recreationally as a teen, but soon his life revolved around getting that next high. To procure drug money, he stole from his parents, pawned furniture, and robbed people on the street. Once he held his own 1-month-old daughter for ransom, only bringing her home after procuring money from his wife and parents. “I lost my human character,” Trung remembers. “I was like an animal.”

Exasperated, Trung’s parents sent him to government-run rehab centers that treated addicts like prisoners, yet every time he left, he’d quickly return to drugs. In 16 years, he entered rehab 14 times. The last time he made up his mind that he’d never go back, so he stopped using drugs but instead drank copious amounts of alcohol, gambled, and caroused with prostitutes in front of his wife and children.

In 2006, Trung ran into a friend he used to do drugs with and found the man was now clean—he had gone to a Christian rehab center and professed faith in Christ. Seeing the change in his friend, Trung agreed to enter the rehab center. Without access to women, alcohol, and drugs, he had nothing to do but read the Bible. After two weeks, he found he no longer used bad words. As he continued reading, he stopped telling lies. He found he had power over the bad thoughts in his mind.

Shocked, he realized that the power of God had done what years of willpower and rehab could not. He professed faith in Christ, and he felt fully forgiven, loved, and made new. Trung spent so much time reading that a friend at rehab called his wife to tell her he was out of his mind: All he did was read the Bible.

During his time in rehab, his wife, parents, and other relatives also professed faith in Christ. His mother was so grateful to have her son back that she spent all her remaining money building a six-story house in the city of Hanoi to use as a house church. Today, six house churches, including one headed by Trung, meet in that house.

June Cheng

From right to left: Trung; his wife; Kim Loan Thi Huynh; three women from the rehab center; and two attendees of the church. (June Cheng)

IN 2009, TRUNG DECIDED TO BUILD A REHAB CENTER in Bac Giang province north of Hanoi. In 2012 the government hired 100 thugs to ransack the center, breaking windows, kicking down doors, and destroying furniture and possessions.

Foreign consulates offered to publicize what the government had done, yet Trung felt God calling him to accept the persecution quietly, so he refused their offers.

The persecution didn’t end: A few months later, someone set Trung’s car on fire as it was parked outside his house. Stunned, Trung and his wife knelt down to pray and suddenly felt a wave of peace. “I consider this a precious experience,” Trung recalled. “When I made the decision to turn away from retaliation and to continue to walk with God, God opened the way for my ministry to work inside government rehab centers two months later.”

That’s when the Hanoi government invited him to share his testimony with addicts in the rehab center where he once stayed. Afterward, officials allowed him to bring the Light for a Path ministry into 17 government rehab centers in northern Vietnam. Through music, testimonies of former addicts, and a gospel presentation, a total of 20,000 addicts heard the gospel. The mayor of Hanoi befriended Trung and today invites him to speak to the city’s police officers and public security officials.

In 2015, Trung bought a piece of land outside Hanoi and built a new drug rehab center with a kitchen, office, chapel, and sleeping quarters for 60 men. Two floors of the building are available for other underground Bible schools to use for classes.

Every day at the Aquila Center, the men wake up at 6 a.m. and start the day with morning devotions before breakfast, followed by a group Bible reading. Each person has his own responsibilities around the center—landscaping, cleaning, or cooking—as well as work in the neighborhood, including visiting poor families and helping them with construction work.

In the afternoons, they meet in small groups for Bible studies and prayer meetings, then play sports. After dinner, they have free time before an evangelistic Alpha course and group prayer until their 9:30 p.m. curfew. Trung estimates the men and women at the Aquila Center spend six hours a day in the Word. The addicts know beforehand that Aquila is a Christian center, yet many nonbelievers come because they are desperate for help.

June Cheng

Men’s dorm rooms. (June Cheng)

In one of the dorm rooms, Samuel Vu grins as he describes the new prayer group he started that meets twice a day at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. to pray for those suffering from mental illnesses. Vu was a Christian before coming to Aquila, but said he only gave 30 percent of his life to Christ. Outwardly, he seemed successful as a university professor, but he felt his life was meaningless and he started using drugs: heroin, prescription drugs, and crystal meth. He ended up in a government rehab center where he heard the gospel with fresh ears through the Light for a Path ministry. After his release, he came to the Aquila Center, where he’s stayed for a year.

“I feel there is so much meaning in my life now,” Vu said. “I just want to do every small thing to please the Lord.”

THE AQUILA CENTER is the largest of 60 Christian drug rehab centers in Vietnam and the only one helping female drug addicts. The women live in Trung’s house church and a nearby building. Trung noted that women are much more difficult to help: Beyond recovery from drug addiction, the women also need healing from deep emotional and physical wounds from years of abuse. They also have easier access to drugs: When men run out of money, it’s difficult to get more drugs. But plenty of pimps are eager to supply women with drugs in exchange for their bodies.

Women also don’t have the same familial support as men do. Vietnam is a very patriarchal society, so typically if a son gets involved in drugs, parents will look for ways to help him get clean, Trung said. But if their daughter gets involved in drugs and prostitution, parents will kick her out of the house. So the families of men who join the Aquila Center pay $80 a month to cover food, but the rehab is free for women.

Kim Loan Thi Huynh, a Vietnamese-Australian, graduated from the program a year ago and now serves at the center. Although she lived in Australia, her family tricked her into entering the Aquila Center by telling her they were taking her on a two-week trip to Vietnam. When they arrived, they brought her to the Aquila Center and took her passport so that she couldn’t leave.

They were exasperated: Huynh started doing drugs at age 18 after her father’s death. The more she used, the more her life spiraled out of control.

Rehabs in Australia didn’t help. Doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, and for years she went in and out of mental hospitals. At 38, 20 years after she first started using, her life became a routine: She would inject crystal meth, drink alcohol all day, vomit, then take more drugs. Life had no purpose, Huynh thought, and she envied friends who had overdosed.

Huynh’s mother, then a Buddhist, heard about Aquila Center from a Christian friend and decided to send her daughter there. In 2016, Huynh entered the center. After a few days, she decided to commit suicide with the prescription drugs she had packed in her suitcase. Later when she told friends in the medical profession how many pills she took that night, they all said she should have died. Yet instead, she came to. “When I came back, I didn’t know what else to do, I can’t die,” Huynh said. “I still didn’t want to be here but I can’t go, so that’s when I reached out to God and gave Him my heart.”

June Cheng

The main building at Aquila. (June Cheng)

She surrendered and started copying what the women around her were doing: reading the Bible, praying, and attending church. Within a week, she felt the dark world in her head lightening. Her insecurities and people-pleasing desires dissolved into peace and joy. Staff at the center took away her prescription medicines, but she soon found that she didn’t want them. Her bipolar disorder was also suddenly healed, and today she’s known for her joyful spirit.

“When my dad died, I felt like I had no value, I felt like my heart was empty,” Kim said through tears. “But today as I grow with God, I know how much value I have. … I have all that [I once lost] and more, heaps more.”

After 10 months, Huynh returned to Australia to share her testimony at Christian conferences and make amends with those she had hurt. Impressed by Huynh’s life changes, Huynh’s mother professed Christ and was recently baptized, and late last year Huynh returned to the Aquila Center to help other women struggling with addictions.

TRUNG HOPES TO EXPAND Aquila Center in the future. Looking out over the dirt clearings by the center, Trung pointed out where he wants to build another dormitory to house more drug addicts, as well as a house of prayer for house churches all over the city to use. Next to the garden, he wants to build an orphanage for the children of drug addicts.

He also hopes to partner soon with local groups that can provide vocational training in cooking, motorbike maintenance, and handicrafts. Once the men leave the center, many return to their hometowns, and Trung works with local churches in different provinces to make sure they stay on the straight and narrow path. Trung said more than 90 percent of them stay in the church after leaving.

Over the Tet holiday in February, while most of the country gathered with family to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Trung stayed at the Aquila Center to oversee the laying of the foundation for the new dormitory. Most police take the week off, so Trung wanted to get the work done before they noticed and tried to interfere. For now, the center can only finish the foundation because it does not have the money to build the rest of the building.

Because the government does not allow the Aquila Center to register legally, the center can raise money from churches and friends but not businesses. Trung said that even though he is grateful the mayor tacitly supports his center, he wishes the government would allow it to register as a rehab center, raise funds like other groups, and expand as they wish.

“When the government asks about the secret to our success, I say that we have Jesus Christ,” Trung said. “Without Christian drug centers, all these men and women would continue to be a drain on society, but instead they are now contributing to society.”

This story is part of our series on the 2018 Hope Awards

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.