The Vietnam Mennonite Church: laying a foundation of peace in the shadow of war

[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Shortly after the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 to end the French Indochina War and temporarily divide Vietnam into northern and southern zones, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) came to Vietnam to support charitable work for Vietnamese people regardless of their religious affiliation, ethnicity or political ideology. The organization
worked together with the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) and The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), which had a presence in Vietnam as early as 1911. While North American Mennonites came to Vietnam to respond to basic human needs following the French Indochina War, their presence and commitment to peacemaking had a deep influence on those who would eventually form the Vietnam Mennonite Church (VMC).

MCC’s first activity in Vietnam was helping to distribute food, clothing and blankets for people migrating south, working closely with the ECVN relief team. MCC also provided medicine for C&MA leprosy camps among ethnic minorities in Buon Me Thuot City in the central highlands for many years. In 1960, MCC partnered with ECVN to build and operate a health clinic in Nha Trang City along the south-central coast. MCC maintained an office in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). When the American War spread in Vietnam, MCC partnered with two other organizations—Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief—to collectively operate as Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS) from 1966 to 1972. VMC activities supported displaced persons in areas of central Vietnam such as Quang Ngai, Tam Ky and Hue; supported highland farmers in Di Linh and Pleiku; and, together with ECVN, also built a health clinic in Pleiku. Many additional social work projects and other health care efforts took place in and around Saigon.

Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC—now Eastern Mennonite Missions, or EMM) first sent workers to Vietnam in 1957 to preach the gospel and to establish the church. After a period of learning Vietnamese, these new workers invited their neighbors and students to study the Bible, share their faith, organize English classes, distribute tracts and organize many other programs and social activities to help people. New believers and ECVN Christians worked together in both evangelical and social work.

Together with Vietnamese colleagues, EMBMC workers envisioned, established and operated a Mennonite center opposite a large public hospital in the center of Saigon. EMBMC purchased the 7,500 square-foot space in 1960 as a student center (sharing its location with the EMBMC office), and it hosted many activities: English classes for hundreds of students (sometimes using the story of Jesus in the curriculum), a library
and reading room for students and a fitness room. Many students signed up for Bible courses offered on weekends in addition to regular Sunday services. The first believers were baptized in 1961. A second Mennonite center opened in Gia Dinh (now Binh Thanh District), Ho Chi Minh City: this center served as a focal point for Mennonite efforts to assist economically marginalized families during the war. EMBMC also purchased a small, 120 square-meter facility in 1973 in Binh Hoa, a few blocks away from the main Gia Dinh office. Here, a childcare center helped poor families.

In 1970, Vietnam Mennonite Missions began ministry in Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta, about 170 kilometers south of Saigon. Among their activities were Bible classes, English lessons and tailoring courses for young women. ECVN university students acquired a 333 square-meter facility on Tu Duc street in February 1975 for use as a student dormitory with space for eating, studying, and worshiping God during the week

On April 30, 1975, as the war ended and Vietnam returned to a unified country, all EMBMC workers needed to leave Vietnam. Some Vietnamese Mennonites had to evacuate abroad or return to their hometowns throughout the country. Almost all church and Christian center activities were halted during the transition of government. Soon
after, the government issued an announcement requiring all churches’ and temples’ weekly activities and large-scale events to be registered with state authorities. Due to internationally dispersed leadership of the Mennonite churches, VMC could not complete all registration requirements. In June 1978 the government assumed control over Mennonite church properties.

In the ensuing years, at the direction of Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung, Mennonite church members worshiped with other, fully-registered congregations (e.g., ECVN and Grace Baptist Church), waiting for the day when they would be able to operate their own location again. Throughout this time, Pastor Trung visited and prayed with Mennonite families. Early in 1983, the executive board of the Vietnam Mennonite Church and
Pastor Trung agreed that the Lord was leading the congregation to begin worshipping together at the pastor’s home. Attendance continued to grow with faithful believers committed to following the Lord and with more than 70 people gathering for the Christmas celebrations.

VMC strives to operate in a constructive spirit of peace, always turning to peace as a guide for its activities. Specifically, during and following the war, the church called on believers to heal and build the country through peaceful methods, not with violence. In this spirit, the church established relief centers and health clinics to help people suffering in the midst of violence. Mennonite believers must assume responsibility for the people around them and unite in interacting with others in a peaceful way.

The VMC was formed amidst the tumult of war. Now, the church finds itself in a favorable position, attained in part through the support of American Mennonites. VMC will continue to build peace in Vietnam and also throughout the world. This message of peace is warmly embraced by the Christian community and is also the philosophy of life for interacting with our neighbors.

Huynh Minh Dang is General Secretary of the Vietnam Mennonite Church.

Learn more

Martin, Luke S., Nguyen Quang Trung, Nguyen Thanh Tam and Nguyen Thi Tam, “The Mennonite Church in Vietnam.” In Churches Engage Asian Traditions. Ed. C. Arnold Snyder and John A. Lapp, 315-336. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2011.

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