IMB honors life of Rachel Kerr James, missionary nurse to war-torn Vietnam

Sam and Rachel James pose with the building named for Sam at dedication ceremony in 2002.
Sam and Rachel James pose with the building named for Sam at dedication ceremony in 2002. | IMB Photo

The International Mission Board has announced that a memorial service commemorating the life of longtime missionary and nurse, Rachel Kerr James, who shared the Gospel in Vietnam, will be held this week. James was among the pioneering Southern Baptists to serve in the war-torn country and established medical clinics while raising four children and supporting her husband in founding churches.

James, who also served in East Asia, Northern Africa and the Middle East, died on April 18, at the age of 88.

Born on Oct. 17, 1934, in Durham, North Carolina, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Duke University.

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James felt called to missionary work from a young age, inspired by her mother’s desire to be a missionary and her own observations of global needs through the experiences of other missionaries, according to an article in her memory, posted on the IMB website.

Her commitment to missions was unwavering, as she later stated, “Since then, my whole life has been centered around this call of God.”

She married Sam James in 1957, and in 1962, the couple was appointed as missionaries to Vietnam by the Foreign Mission Board, which is now the International Mission Board.

She served as a nurse practitioner in South Vietnam for 14 years during the war.

Throughout her time in Vietnam, James provided medical care to rural villages near Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. She recognized a critical need for health care due to the scarcity of Vietnamese doctors and nurses, as many were drafted into the South Vietnamese military.

Despite their dedicated service, the James family could not avoid the war’s encroachment. Sam James narrowly escaped death on three occasions between 1965 and 1970, according to the ministry.

As North Vietnamese forces advanced toward Saigon in April 1975, Rachel James and her children were evacuated to Thailand. Sam remained in the city with a small group of IMB colleagues, tending to the influx of refugees until they were forced to flee five days before the city fell to communist forces.

Following their time in Vietnam, Rachel James continued to serve as a nurse practitioner for 38 years in other regions of the world. Her husband held various leadership roles with the IMB, conducting training and conferences in 115 countries and overseeing the construction of a new training center near Richmond, Virginia.

In 2002, the couple was granted permission to visit Vietnam several times a year, despite not being allowed to live there. By 2009, Sam was recognized by the Vietnamese government as a “professor of religion,” allowing him to teach at the newly formed Vietnamese Baptist Bible Institute.

The couple officially retired from the IMB on Dec. 31, 2013, to focus on Rachel’s health. Before their missionary service, Sam had helped found Homestead Heights Baptist Church in Durham, now known as The Summit Church.

James is predeceased by her son, Philip, and survived by her husband of 65 years; three children; four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

On the Legacy website, Gerald and Brenda Burch wrote, “Separation until we are Raptured or called home is always difficult. Rachel will be greatly missed, but in Christ's unfailing love, we will see her again.”

A memorial service in her memory will be held on May 13 at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.

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