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
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.
heard Ford curse before,” Nessen
wrote in a December 2006 Washington Post article, “but
he did that day when he read the story.
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
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
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.
recent passing adds to the grief, yet also serves
as a reminder of the extraordinary
compassion of the most famous Grand Rapids citizen.
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