‘All of a Sudden, It Didn’t Sound Like Firecrackers Anymore’

An adventurous missionary couple recalls stories of war, love, and faith.

Paola Mora Zepeda, for Southern Tidings
<strong>‘All of a Sudden, It Didn’t Sound Like Firecrackers Anymore’</strong>
Charles and Ruth Harris pose in their Nashville, Tennessee, home. The couple served as missionaries in Vietnam and Singapore and completed other projects for God while living in the United States. [Photo: Paola Mora Zepeda]

The story of Charles and Ruth Harris has many twists and turns — with each chapter very different than the last but the entire narrative written by God. From early childhood to adulthood, key events in their lives convicted them that there is a merciful Redeemer; and through war, dangerous missions, and inspired initiatives, the couple decided to dedicate their being and talents to serve their loving Savior.

A Love Story

As a child, Charles Harris lived with his family on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, United States. His mother died when he was nine years old, and his father remarried two and a half months later to the woman his late wife had recommended. This was an influential moment in Charles’ life. His stepmom got him into the habit of doing daily personal devotions — a habit he continues to this day. Around this time, Charles found his first love in Jesus and was baptized on May 18, 1940.

Two years later, on October 8, 1942, Charles met his second love when Ruth’s family moved to his family’s upstairs apartment. Charles says that, even as a young boy, he immediately fell for her.

“My teacher sat Ruth in front of me, and that was even better,” Charles said. “I did not dare to whisper or to send her notes because I did not want the teacher to separate us.”

In the spring of 1951, during Charles’s junior year of college and shortly after the start of the Korean War, the couple married and started their adventure together. In 1953, Charles was drafted for the war and was stationed in Japan. His experience in the Far East was a preparation for their lives’ next chapter.

A War Story

In 1964, Charles and Ruth accepted the call to serve in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Charles was the business manager for the Saigon Adventist Hospital and the secretary/treasurer for the Vietnam Mission. Ruth worked as receptionist, helping Americans who wanted to see English-speaking doctors. This was all amid the Vietnam War.

In February 1965, just before the big American military buildup, the American Embassy was advising all United States citizens to evacuate the country. The family was scared, and Ruth started packing their belongings. But God had other plans and spoke to them, through their translator, who asked: “Why are you leaving us now? Just when we need you the most, that’s when you leave?”

Ruth was touched by this and slowly began to empty their suitcases. She felt God telling her that their mission in Vietnam wasn’t over.

“I realized that the local people were just like us,” Ruth said. “They had the same fears we had, but they could not leave. So, we made the decision to stay regardless of what happened.” During their time in Vietnam, the Harrises faced dangers on multiple occasions, including a night when Charles was shot at, and a Saturday (Sabbath) afternoon when their family was out for a walk and came across a squad of North Vietnamese communist soldiers with AK-47s.

One January evening in 1968, their two children, Charles III and Carolyn, observed the firecrackers going off for Chinese New Year. It was a big celebration, but things quickly took a turn.

“All of a sudden, it didn’t sound like firecrackers anymore,” Ruth said. “Carolyn came in our room and said she was afraid because there were some big booms going on. She was on the front of the house. So, we went outside and, sure enough, they were dropping flares and attacking the palace that was about a mile from us.”

That was the beginning of the Tet Offensive in 1968 — one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. Despite the threats, the Harrises remained strong in their faith.

“We started memorizing Psalm 91 as a family, and the fear melted away fairly quickly,” Charles said. “We were at ease and stayed longer in Vietnam than any missionary since the 1930s.”

In 1969, the Harrises accepted a call to serve in the Youngberg Memorial Adventist Hospital in Singapore, and thus began their next chapter.

A Smuggler’s Story

While working in Singapore, the family read Brother Andrew’s book God’s Smuggler, an autobiography about how the author smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain back in the 1950s. Charles felt God challenging him to do the same.

Thus, on their way to visit family in the United States, the Harrises decided to return through Moscow, which was then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In their suitcases, even though they knew it was illegal and dangerous, they hid copies of the Bible, the Testaments, and the books of John and Mark in the Russian language. That Saturday (Sabbath), they met with fellow believers and shared with them the precious cargo.

“After the church service, we were taken up to a small room just off the balcony, where we could talk without being snooped upon by communist plants in the congregation,” Charles said. “At that meeting, we were given a list of 147 books they wanted to have so they could translate them into their own language.”

The books requested included Ellen G. White, Christian children’s books, and cookbooks. The Harrises promised to do their best and started raising the money to purchase the materials. The books were mailed from the United States to Singapore, and over the next few years, the Harrises, along with four other families, smuggled 147 books into the USSR. God oversaw this mission, and no one was ever caught.

Charles and Ruth Harris with their children, Carolyn and Charles III, several decades ago. [Photo: courtesy of Charles Harris]

A Mission Story

The Harris family moved back to the United States in 1973, when their son was ready to start college. The couple first worked at the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference, then managed three nursing homes in Dalton, Georgia. Finally, in 1981, Charles and Ruth asked to go to Centerville, Tennessee, to help run another nursing facility.

Their first Sabbath in the Martin Memorial Church in Centerville was very nostalgic. This was the same church that Charles and Ruth had attended more than 30 years earlier. Their parents had been faithful lay workers there, and the couple had met many passionate church members who wanted to grow a positive Adventist influence in Hickman County.

Now, decades later, the church was dwindling. There was no longer a pastor, and the congregation hadn’t met in three months. The church’s bathroom was an outhouse, and there was no running water.

“At that time, we had just finished building our house,” Ruth said. “So, we kind of just looked at each other and thought, ‘You know, it’s not right for the Lord not to have at least as good a house as we do.’ ”

In addition to building a new church building, the Harrises had another ambitious project: establishing a church school. This meant not only additional costs but that they also had to find a new property.

For years, the Harrises wrote letters to family and friends raising money for the Martin Memorial Church and school. The Kentucky-Tennessee Business and Professional Association loaned them US$30,000, and the couple was able to raise an additional US$193,000 for the property, construction, and furnishing. Finally, in October 1990, the Martin Memorial Church had a debt-free dedication.

“It will be so thrilling when we get to heaven to be able to tell those early pioneers that their efforts in Hickman County were not in vain,” Charles said.

The Harrises still attend the Martin Memorial Church online — which now has more than 100 members. They lead Sabbath School and prayer groups. They are also regular storytellers at the Centerville Christian School, sharing their mission stories from Vietnam, Singapore, Russia, and the United States.

This Is God’s Story

If you visit the Harrises’ home in Nashville, you get a small glimpse of the big adventures they once lived. The home is decorated with paintings and keepsakes from around the world. Clippings of newspapers and magazines commemorate important and historic occasions of their mission work. Family pictures celebrate the different chapters throughout their lives — each of them lived with an immense amount of faith.

Looking back at their experiences, the couple said they lived through the greatest stories and challenges when they let God take control.

“He has directed so many adventures in our lives with strong evidence that He is there,” Charles said. “Sometimes you talk to people that never seem to know what they ought to do. But for us, we start our morning with God, and He leads the rest of the day.”

The original version of this story was posted by Southern Tidings.

Paola Mora Zepeda, for Southern Tidings