By: Christa Meland
Quynh-Hoa Nguyen was born and grew up in Vietnam, and in the 1990s, she realized she was called to study theology and provide theological education to the people in her home country. So she went to the U.S. in 1998 and spent the next 15 years earning a master of divinity and then a doctoral degree in religion.
“As a woman who would be returning to a patriarchal country, I was aware that I had to study more than men to be recognized,” she said.
But return she did—and for the past three years, she’s been working as a United Methodist missionary who trains lay people. Nguyen spent two weeks in Minnesota in September to visit with and provide updates to some of the congregations that support her.
“Minnesota has a heart for Vietnam,” she said. “Many is my gratitude for the heart of the mission.”
Equipping and empowering lay people
The United Methodist Church has a small but growing presence in Vietnam. The majority of congregations are house churches where extended families meet to worship.
Because many Vietnamese grew up knowing only the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, which is far more conservative than United Methodism, denominational practices and beliefs are still new to them. Nguyen educates lay people using a revised version of The United Methodist Church’s lay servant ministries curriculum. She teaches them everything from basic United Methodist principles to how to lead worship and Bible studies. Communication, leadership, pastoral care, and spirituality are the four areas she focuses on.
“I want to teach a theology that speaks to the needs and experiences of Vietnamese people…that’s my hope,” she said.
The patriarchal culture, however, presents some challenges in Nguyen’s work. The centralization of power among men fosters silence and submission among women. Within the church, that translates to women not being encouraged to use their gifts and graces for ministry—or to demonstrate any leadership attributes.
“It’s hard to work together when you don’t share power and work as team,” said Nguyen, who is working to empower women to share their gifts to build the kingdom. “There are rulers versus leaders, and the concept of servant leadership is hard to understand.”
Meeting needs throughout Vietnam
There is significant poverty in Vietnam, and Nguyen has worked on three programs that have addressed those needs in tangible ways:
• Bibles and backpacks: In Vietnam, primary schools don’t charge tuition, but families do have to pay fees for various supplies and activities. To lighten the financial burden placed on them, this program distributes backpacks—each containing a Bible, one year’s worth of school supplies, and a rain coat—to orphans, children with satisfactory grades, and those facing financial hardship. “It fosters education, which is highly valued in Vietnam,” said Nguyen. Pastors across the country collect the names of those in their areas who meet these requirements, and Nguyen and a group of volunteers assemble the supplies and send them by bus for the pastors to distribute. This year alone, 326 children received item-filled backpacks. Several annual conferences have donated funds to make this program possible, and next year, a volunteer who’s been working alongside Nguyen will take it over.
• Health kits: People in rural parts of Vietnam have little access to health services. So late last year, Nguyen—using funds given by a district in the West Ohio Conference—started a program to send health kits to areas where needs are greatest. Each kit contains shampoo, a brush, toothpaste, a bar of soap, a blanket, a mosquito net, and multi-vitamins. Most families receive one kit, but those with more than five people can have two. A medicine cabinet containing two additional items—ibuprofen and an anti-diarrheal—is also sent to each church to distribute to people as needed. Nguyen said it’s not safe to send medicine directly to families, as people in some rural areas aren’t well educated about the proper dosage and might take too much. Instead, they’re told to ask the nearest church for medication when they are sick. Similar to the Bibles and backpacks program, pastors collect the names of families in their area, and Nguyen and a group of volunteers assemble the kits and send them by bus for the pastors to distribute. Last year, 217 kits were given out.
• Used clothing: In 2015, when Nguyen was leading a training event for laity, attendees were brainstorming how to serve needy communities with resources available in Vietnam—and one woman came up with the idea of distributing used clothing. Since then, twice a year, those in cities with more wealth have been invited to donate clothing for those in cities with less wealth. Word about collection times spreads far and wide via Facebook, and the program has helped to outfit thousands of the neediest individuals in Vietnam. Nguyen initially led this program, which is now run by a volunteer.
Nguyen is grateful to the people of the Minnesota Conference for their prayers and support. Twice within the past couple of years, teams from the conference have gone to Vietnam to explore how to meet the needs of children; they’ve also funded and led Vacation Bible School.
“Within the church, I can see that God brings people from different conferences from the United States to partner with Vietnam in many ways,” she said. “Without the support and connection with conferences in the U.S., including Minnesota, we wouldn’t be able to do the mission there, to spread God’s love to the people in Vietnam.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church