From C. F. W. Walther to Hanoi

New LCMS school in Hanoi ‘tremendous accomplishment,’ says Walther kin

By Kim Plummer Krull

When Jim Wolf served with the Marines in Vietnam in the late 1960s, it was a less than ideal first visit, especially, he says, for a “sheltered German Lutheran kid.”

Back then, he never imagined that he would one day return to help build economic ties between the United States and the Southeast Asia country and even be welcomed as a friend of the Vietnamese government.

And the thought of an LCMS international school opening in Hanoi would have been “impossible to conceive” some 40 years ago, he says—even for the great-great-grandson of the Rev. Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the LCMS leader called the “father of the Missouri Synod.”

Wolf—a former Marine, retired global banking executive and LCMS member with deep Synod roots—says that the years-in-the-making relationships that both he and the LCMS have developed in Vietnam “must be the Lord’s plan.”

“Otherwise, it’s impossible to fathom,” said Wolf, of Pittsburgh, Pa., whose mother, Edna Marie Walther Wolf, 95, is believed to be the oldest living direct descendent of the church pioneer who played a key role in the Synod’s founding in 1847 and served as the first LCMS president.

Wolf calls the new Concordia International School Hanoi (CISH), which opened in August, “a great way to reach more people” and “shine our light” in Vietnam.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment. It’s not easy being officially recognized as an international school in Vietnam,” said Wolf, who has longstanding ties to the country, first through his military service and then his career. “My hat is off to all those dedicated servants who worked so diligently over the years to make it a reality.”

As an executive with Standard Chartered Bank, Wolf’s work in trade and investment development took him all over the globe, including back to Vietnam.

The opening of the Synod’s newest international school represents “a lot of work” by the LCMS, Wolf said. “It’s a great step that’s sure to plant seeds.”

Years in the Making

After years of building relationships and tackling legalities, the Concordia school received approval from the Hanoi government and opened with about 50 students in pre-kindergarten through grade seven. CISH is modeled after two sister institutions in Asia, the Hong Kong International School and Concordia International School Shanghai, China. LCMS educator Steven Winkelman serves as the Concordia Hanoi head of school.

The Synod selected Vietnam as its third international school site, building on human care work that began in 1995 through LCMS World Mission as a registered non-governmental organization in Vietnam, headed by the Rev. Ted Engelbrecht. Over the years, LCMS projects to help poor families earned recognition from Vietnam’s National Institute of Nutrition, including programs to teach mothers about prenatal nutrition and farmers about crop diversification.

CISH addresses another great need: improved education in the world’s 13th most populous country. “I’ve spoken with leaders in both the Vietnam government and in the U.S. State Department, and all agree very strongly that education is a top priority for the two countries to be working on together,” Wolf said.

Families connected to the U.S. embassy and Hanoi’s huge multi-national business community also expressed a desire for more international educational opportunities for foreign and American children as well as local students. At present, only students holding foreign passports can be enrolled at Concordia Hanoi, according to guidelines set by the Vietnamese government.

In Hanoi, the expatriate population consists of more than 20 different nationalities, Winkelman said last year in a Reporter interview, with citizens from the United States, Australia, Canada and Great Britain making up the largest percentage of native English speakers. The largest foreign populations come from Japan and South Korea.

Strengthening Ties

As an international school in Hanoi, CISH must operate differently than the traditional LCMS school in the United States. Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country, Wolf said, “with a significantly smaller minority Christian population.”

“It won’t look like our American [LCMS] schools, but it can have an impact,” Wolf said.

Wolf, a member of Peace Lutheran Church, McMurray, Pa., plans to visit CISH on his next scheduled trip to Vietnam in November. He retired from Standard Chartered Bank in 2006 but continues to work as an economic development consultant for companies pursuing business opportunities in Vietnam. His desire to help strengthen American ties with Vietnam ignited when work took him back to Hanoi in 2005, his first return since his military service.

Although he “always wanted to go back,” Wolf said he was surprised that he and his wife, Mary, were “welcomed with such open arms” as Americans in Hanoi.

“That keyed in my mind that I wanted to continue to do things there that were much more positive than my first experience in Vietnam as a Marine,” Wolf said.

A conversation with Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S. affirmed Wolf’s decision to use his expertise on behalf of two countries once torn by war. “The ambassador told me that my [military] service was honorable, because my country asked me to do it. Now, he said, you are doing something from your heart that is even more honorable,” Wolf said.

As he continues his work in Vietnam, Wolf also follows LCMS work there, including the opening of the Concordia Hanoi school. He has met with LCMS World Mission’s Rev. J.P. Cima, who is based in Vietnam, and worshipped with Cima and his wife, Aimee, and other expatriates at an international congregation.

Part of the Walther Legacy

Like his great-great-grandfather, Wolf is a strong proponent of Lutheran education. He speaks fondly of

his church-focused childhood in St. Louis, Mo.

“When I grew up, everything revolved around the church—Walther League, Boy Scouts, the church sports teams,” he said. “Going to a Lutheran grade school and high school provided a great foundation for my life and my faith.”

He looks forward to joining in the Walther Bicentennial celebration, participating, when possible, in events that begin this fall and will extend through the 125th anniversary of Walther’s death in 2012.

Walther helped lay the foundation for a church body that now ranks as one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 2.3 million baptized members in some 6,200 congregations. The LCMS operates America’s largest Protestant parochial school system.

“A bit of pride swells up,” Wolf says, at the mention of the LCMS founding father’s lasting leadership. “It’s neat to have him for a great-great-grandfather.”

As the newest Concordia international school begins serving students and families in Hanoi, Walther’s legacy continues to grow. “He believed strongly in reaching out and serving others,” Wolf said of Walther. “I know this new LCMS school would make him happy.”

To learn more, visit the Concordia International School Hanoi website at www.concordiahanoi.org.