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|Growth of the North American Vietnamese Mennonite Fellowship|
Small organization has big impact
December 14, 2007
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — In just ten years and with only nine member congregations, the North American Vietnamese Mennonite Fellowship (NAVMF) has helped to plant over 200 churches in Vietnam and make inroads in Cambodia.
“We are a small organization,” says NAVMF past president Nhien Pham, who is now pastor at Vancouver Vietnamese Mennonite Church. “We don’t have a lot of financial resources, but the Lord opened a door for us.” With support from Mennonite Church Canada, Nhien Pham and other NAVMF representatives visit Vietnam regularly to encourage believers and church leaders. Financial assistance allows them to offer leadership training, build worship spaces and encourage economic development.
NAVMF was created in 1991 for two purposes; to fellowship with Mennonite brothers and sisters in North America and to plant churches in Vietnam. While expansion in North America has been slow with the addition of just two churches since its inception, NAVMF refers to the growth in Vietnam as an “explosion.” When NAVMF began working there in 1997, there were no Mennonite churches and fewer than 100 Mennonites. Nhien Pham estimates there are currently 10,000 Mennonites in Vietnam, many of whom meet in home-based churches for financial reasons and to avoid government interference. There is also a small but growing number of Vietnamese Mennonites in Cambodia.
At their eighth biennial conference last June 29 to July 1, NAVMF representatives had the opportunity to explore their accomplishments and to look to the future. Donald Sensenig, who worked with Eastern Mennonite Missions for ten years, presented a pictorial summary of Mennonites in Vietnam. Guest speaker Rev. Dr. Thomas Stebbins, a former Christian and Missionary Alliance missionary in Vietnam, led a workshop addressing the current explosion of evangelism.
Growth has not been easy. Although the Mennonite Church had been present in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, political upheaval in 1975 brought widespread disruption to religious practices and persecution of Christians. Official tolerance has since improved, but following the arrest of several pastors in 2004, Vietnamese Mennonites split into two groups, both identifying themselves as the Vietnam Mennonite Church. On October 2, 2007 the government granted a “Certificate for Religious Activities” to one of those groups. That particular group, led by President Pastor Nguyen Trung, now has permission to operate throughout the country and to meet nationally.
Pastor Nhien Pham noted that the unrecognized group tends to be more charismatic and is openly critical of the government and justice issues. “We are trying to work with these two groups so they will stay together, to help them grow and to become more established,” he said. “Our hope is that we can send a mission worker from NAVMF to spend time there and respond to the needs.” But this is a challenging proposition for NAVMF; qualified member pastors are already serving churches in North America and are unable to commit the necessary time to an overseas project.
Church planting, both at home and abroad, demands careful balancing of finances as well as personnel for leadership and administration.
Despite the challenges, NAVMF board members are committed to their mission. Nhien Pham has travelled to Vietnam on numerous occasions to share the gospel. He keeps a journal chronicling his experiences and the stories of those whom he has led to Christ. Van Hoa Chau, a NAVMF board member, was drawn to the organization by his desire to help victims of social injustice and natural disasters. Thinh Ho, NAVMF treasurer, is committed to the organization for the same reasons. “My heart was for building the Mennonite Church in Vietnam and to help people facing oppression, natural disaster, and poverty,” he wrote in an email exchange. He noted that his interest in NAVMF was piqued by the opportunity to connect with other Vietnamese Mennonites in North America and to see how human and financial resources actually work to improve the lives of those living in Vietnam.
Current NAVMF president and Calgary Vietnamese Mennonite Church pastor, Chau Dang, reported that it is his great joy to see God’s kingdom advance not only in North America and Vietnam, but also in Cambodia where over a million Vietnamese refugees are eager to learn about Christianity. NAVMF helped one Vietnamese-Cambodian community open a small clothing factory to support the local church. Church members provided money to buy four sewing machines and NAVMF helped them generate funds to buy two more.
NAVMF membership currently includes churches in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Leamington PA, Allentown and Hawaii. When funds and personnel are available, NAVMF anticipates planting churches in Toronto, Montreal and St. John’s.
Sidebar – A pastor’s passion for Vietnam
When Pastor Nhien Pham travels to Vietnam, he takes note of his encounters in a journal so that he may share stories about the power God has to change lives.
In a telephone interview, Pham spoke of a recent trip to Vietnam where he and his party visited the relatives of a member at Calgary Vietnamese Mennonite Church. Pham intended to have the family meet a local Saigon pastor for a gradual introduction to Christianity, but God had other plans. “They were expecting us,” Nhien Pham said. “They had a meal for us. After dinner we shared the gospel with them and the whole family came to the Lord. There were 14 people. God blessed us!” He paused for a moment and then chuckled, “That was one of my good days.”
Nhien Pham also recounted the story of Ly*, a Vietnamese pastor. Before she became a pastor, Ly was a member of the government security force. She was assigned to infiltrate and spy on the church by pretending to be a believer. In the course of carrying out her duties, she obtained and read a bible. Ly was transformed. She committed herself to Christ and quit her job. This change of heart cost her dearly, however. She lost all the benefits she had previously enjoyed as a government worker and her husband divorced her. Despite these setbacks, Ly struggled on to raise her children, who in turn became Christians. NAVMF now supports Ly in her ministry to two church groups; one that meets in her home and another that gathers 15 to 20 kilometres away. She makes the journey by motorcycle.
Dac Kien*, another pastor Pham encountered, once worked for the government as a guerrilla soldier fighting the Khmer Rouge. “As an orphan, this special position was assigned because if anything happened to him, no one would know or care,” Nhien Pham said. “He saw terrible things during the war.”
Dac Kien was eventually injured and discharged from service. Consumed with bitterness and plagued by an unusual physical condition that caused his face to change colour throughout the day, he became the fearsome leader of a rebel group. With a grenade in hand and nothing to lose, Dac Kien and his crew hijacked out-of-the-way busses to coerce money from passengers. Because of his military background, local police were hesitant to confront him. But then Dac Kien met Christ and he was healed. His peculiar skin condition vanished along with his anger and his bitterness.
A relative who was a high-ranking government official tried to convince Dac Kien to give up his faith, but Dac Kien responded, “The Lord has saved me and changed me. Do you want me to turn back to my former lifestyle?”
The relative could not respond.
Pastor Nhien Pham served as President of NAVMF for ten years. Though he has retired from that position, he currently leads the Vancouver Vietnamese Mennonite Church and he plans to continue his work with the Vietnam Mennonite Church.
*Not their real names.