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A refuge from Vietnam
President Gerald R. Ford, Rev. Howard M. Schipper and other Grand Rapids citizens helped make this city a home for Vietnamese refugees.

By Gordon G. Beld
Photography courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum

The hearts and doors of Grand Rapids opened wide to refugees from war-torn Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s, thanks in large measure to a local clergyman and his wife, hundreds of ordinary but compassionate citizens, and the late President Gerald R. Ford.

In 1975, the Rev. Mr. Howard Schipper, pastor of Bethany Reformed Church, and his wife, Marybelle, were flying home from a conference at Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. At the conference they heard Schuller urge, “If you want your church to be successful and have some impact, find a need and fill it.”

With the Schippers on their return flight to Michigan were several orphaned Vietnamese children who, after having survived a plane crash in Vietnam a few weeks earlier, were being escorted to Boston by Catholic nuns. Howard and Marybelle realized they had found their need. As they flew home, they pondered what Christians in the United States could do to help.

Meanwhile, soon after taking the nation’s highest office in 1974, President Ford encountered opposition in Congress and among the general public to extend a helping hand to refugees. Ford’s former press secretary, Ron Nessen, recently recalled showing Ford a news report concerning the House of Representatives’ rejection of a bill that would have provided funds to resettle thousands of South Vietnamese refugees facing imprisonment and possible execution.

“I’d never heard Ford curse before,” Nessen wrote in a December 2006 Washington Post article, “but he did that day when he read the story.

“He undertook a public lobbying campaign, including visits to refugee camps in Arkansas and Florida, which turned around public and congressional opposition to helping the refugees. “It was his greatest display of moral leadership.”

Shortly thereafter, Dr. William Ver Meulen and his wife, Wilma, members of Bethany Reformed, attended a State Department dinner in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of President and Mrs. Ford. Contacts the Ver Meulens were able to make at the State Department cleared the way for support of an effort to resettle up to a hundred refugee families in West Michigan.

The Schippers initially hoped to bring one planeload of refugees to Grand Rapids with the help of area churches. They would call the venture “Freedom Flight.” They presented their idea to the congregation, and members of a Sunday school class began contacting members of other churches for support. Leadership from the Catholic Human Development Office and an emerging local branch of Church World Service were at the forefront of the effort.

As the war in Vietnam was nearing an end, Ford had ordered American naval and contract vessels to assist in the evacuation of refugees from coastal seaports. He initiated a program to provide temporary housing for refugees at four reception centers in the U.S. Thousands of Vietnamese were processed at the centers, prepared to be resettled in every state of the Union.

Much of the American public, however, was not enthusiastic about welcoming the Vietnamese. A spokesperson for the state of Michigan said at the time that the sympathetic reception for Vietnamese orphans did not apply to Vietnamese adults.

Positive attitudes prevailed in Grand Rapids, however. Rev. Schipper traveled to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas to select the first refugees to be settled in this area. Meanwhile, Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Philip Runkel formed a coalition of 100 representatives from industry, labor, the Red Cross, volunteer agencies and other organizations to develop plans concerning how the community could help.

With leadership from the school system’s bilingual education and adult education departments, English classes for the arriving refugees were offered, first at Bethany Reformed and subsequently at other locations.

From that coalition, 18 representatives were selected to form what was known as the Freedom Flight Task Force. The operational arm of the task force became the Freedom Flight Refugee Center, which continued as a Church World Service affiliate, bringing refugees to West Michigan for the next 24 years.

Rev. Schipper, who headed the initial task force, and his wife supervised activities of the refugee center until it closed in 1999. By that time it had resettled more than 11,000 refugees from Southeast Asia and other parts of the world in the Grand Rapids area.

In addition to his leadership at Freedom Flight, Rev. Schipper continued to serve as pastor of Bethany Reformed and later as general secretary of the Michigan Synod of the Reformed Church in America. His death a year ago saddened the thousands of Vietnamese who had come to this area as a result of his compassion and devotion.

President Ford’s recent passing adds to the grief, yet also serves as a reminder of the extraordinary compassion of the most famous Grand Rapids citizen.

“Throughout the final ordeal of Indochina, Gerald Ford focused on America’s duty to rescue the maximum number of those who had relied on us,” former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger commented in a eulogy for Ford delivered Jan. 2. “The extraction of 150,000 refugees was the consequence. And, typically, Gerald Ford saw it as his duty to visit one of the refugee camps long after public attention had moved elsewhere.”

Also typical of Ford was deflecting the credit to the citizenry. He said at the time: “The warmth and generosity that have characterized the welcome that Americans have given the refugees serve as a reaffirmation of American awareness of the roots and ideals of our society.” GR

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