Kim Phuc, best known from the haunting photograph of her as a young girl running, naked and screaming, from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, spoke to 1,000 people at Liberty Baptist Church last Sunday.
“It is not necessary to face a war with bombs, to be angry, hopeless and bitter,” Kim explained. “There are so many people in this world, even in the room, who’ve had bombs explode in their heart. … Please come to the Lord Jesus. … By His grace He will heal you and make you a new creation.”
Pastor Dwight Tomlinson invited Kim to speak about the event and her journey of pain, forgiveness and God’s grace. commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the bombing. This is the third time she has spoken at Liberty.
“I spent two terms in Vietnam with the 75th Rangers in the United States Army,” Pastor Dwight Tomlinson said. “As a Vietnam vet, I’ve always been interested in what happened. Kim is a member of an Independent Baptist Church in Canada and I know her pastor. Her story is amazing, and one we wanted to share.”
Pastor Tomlinson welcomed the packed audience to Kim’s only Orange County appearance.
“God will speak to you if you want to hear from Him,” Pastor Tomlinson said. “God did not cause what happened 40 years ago to Kim, but God was there. … One of the ways was by having Nick Ut there to pour water on her burns.”
AP Photographer Nick Ut took the Pulitzer-prize winning photo on June 8, 1972.
After photographing the bombing, Nick took Kim and other injured children to a hospital where it was concluded that Kim’s burns were too severe to survive. God had other plans, and she remained in the hospital 14 months, eventually enduring 17 surgeries. Nick was in the audience Sunday, and after an emotional reunion with Kim, he spoke briefly.
Then Kim described her long, painful recovery.
“I felt bitter and angry,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t live life like that. I knew I needed to change my heart or I’d die like that. I searched for answers. One day in the library, I found a Bible, and at 19, I decided to become a Christian. I remember the moment. I went to church and heard the message that Jesus came to die for our sins, and that Jesus will come into my heart and bring peace. I really needed that peace. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior at Christmas 1982. I realized God has a purpose in my life.”
In 1986, while in Cuba for school, Kim met a fellow Vietnamese student named Bui Huy Toan, who she later married. While returning to Cuba after their honeymoon in Moscow, the couple defected when their plane refueled in Newfoundland.
“We had no money, no family, no friends or knowledge of Canada,” Kim explained. “But I had faith.”
Kim’s faith helped her do something she couldn’t do on her own.
“To learn how to forgive the ones who caused my suffering was a really big challenge for me,” she said. “I have a lot of scars and endured so much pain. I had to pray a lot. I didn’t just wake up one day and forgive. … The more I prayed for my enemies, the softer my heart became. I was free; it was heaven on Earth for me. God healed my heart. … It was the hardest work of my life. If I can do it, so can you.”
In 1996, Kim was invited to attend the Veteran’s Day ceremonies at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. She spoke about finally finding happiness and freedom after years of pain and suffering. Kim shared the message there, as she does everywhere she speaks, that though we can’t change history, we can promote peace in the future.
“Dear friends, forgiveness is a choice,” Kim said. “May God help each of us to make the right choice and experience something beyond beautiful.”
Eric Johnson, assistant pastor at Liberty, said Kim is an ambassador of hope.
“A lot of people feel like they’ve been hurt in different ways, and Kim’s story shows that you can be an innocent victim of something terrible, and choose not to let that overcome you. She chose to forgive because of her relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Hearing her story gives people the opportunity to say, ‘Wow, if she can overcome her pain, then maybe I can too.’”
Cindy can be reached at [email protected].