Henry Breidenthal is a rule-breaker, though you’d never suspect it. This mild-mannered 73-year-old who grew up near Kansas City was arrested last year in Vietnam and interrogated for three days. He’d been in the country with a tape recorder – breaking the rules.
“I told people I was doing a study on language,” he explains with a grin. “And I was. I had on tape the people from Thailand speaking in the Mien (Mee-uhn) language to the people who spoke the same language in Vietnam. What I didn’t tell them was the tape I played for them was all about Jesus.”
He drew a crowd. Among them, a plain-clothes Communist policeman who took the tape recorder. Breidenthal tried to get it back. The crowd wouldn’t let him. He couldn’t run – there were mountains all around him. And so, when the police grabbed his arm to take him, he had to go.
“They did not harm me. They wanted to fine me, but I didn’t have enough money to pay them. So they arranged to send me back to Hanoi and then back to Bangkok.”
It was in 1965 when Breidenthal made missions his lifelong work. Actually, he would say that’s when Jesus made the decision for him. He’d gone to church all his life, but said it was a Youth For Christ meeting about missions that changed his life – that gave him the purpose he says he was seeking. He went on to complete medical school and then became an ordained minister in the Central Bible Church. At the age of 32, he joined Overseas Missionary Fellowship and he chose to go to central Thailand – the heart of Buddhism.
Because he was a doctor, he went to help the lepers. They were his first converts.
“The people of Thailand are very self-sufficient. They didn’t feel they needed God. The lepers needed the hope Christ offers.”
He gives all the credit for anything he’s ever accomplished to Christ.
“The Gospel is the power, not me.”
It’s power that’s helped him start two Bible colleges and share his faith, primarily with members of the Miens, a tribe of people who populate Southeast Asia. He retired eight years ago, but still lives and works in Thailand.
From the grass hut he calls his home in their village in the mountains of Thailand, Breidenthal has shared the Bible. There, the people can worship freely. But the country remains primarily Buddhist.
On occasion, he has quietly traveled into Laos and Vietnam where there is no freedom of religion. He shows pictures of those he has taught – pictures that cannot be published because he fears for the safety of those who claim Christ as their Savior in those communist countries.
He has been in the Parkland recently as the guest of his niece, Elaine Bone, and her husband Rev. Eddie Bone, pastor of the Park Hills United Methodist Church. There, he has opened the congregation’s eyes to overseas missions.
“Too many people think of missions just as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoners,” said Rev. Bone. “The real mission of the church is to preach and teach the Gospel and reach the world.”
He said only about one cent of every dollar given to missions goes to reach “the unreached.”
In the mountains of Southeast Asia, Breidenthal has found them. There are about one and a half million members of the Mien tribes in China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. They have no access to communications that would tell them about Christ. And so, he has taught them and now, they lead their own churches. Still, only about 40 villages have been touched by Christianity. There are over 130 more to be reached.
He also works with Wickliff Bible Translators helping to bring Bibles in their own language to the people in tribes like those he serves. He said while Africa has the greatest number of people without Bibles, the second greatest number is those in Southeast Asia.
“It’s like if you are going to help hungry people, they are better off if you teach them to fish than if you just give them fish,” said Breidenthal. “We give the tribes the Bible and have them get people to help them translate it.”
People always ask the missionary about his moments of danger. There is one story he often tells that was relayed to him by a friend.
“In the tribe where I live, the soldiers came in one day and said to the tribal leader, ‘Henry is walking that trail out there, let’s kill him!’ The general of the tribe thought for a minute and he said, ‘No.’ If he had said yes, I’d have been gone.”
When the tsunami hit Thailand last December, Breidenthal felt the aftershocks at his home in the mountains. The seminary where he teaches sent 100 students to help.
He will be in America until the end of May – telling his story to help Christians here understand the work that is still to be done to spread the message of Jesus Christ. It’s his first visit back in more than two years.
“If you take all the world and put it into 10 people, you will have one who is truly ‘born again,’ two who are under the influence of Christianity, but have not fully embraced it, three more who know about Christ, but don’t want him and four who don’t know about him at all.”
It’s those last four he’s spent a lifetime trying to reach.