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Died: Nguyen Quang Trung, Mennonite Who Led Church Through Dark Days in Vietnam

From 1978 to 2008, he fought for legal recognition and freedom to worship for the Anabaptist denomination.
Died: Nguyen Quang Trung, Mennonite Who Led Church Through Dark Days in Vietnam
Image: Illustration by Christianity Today / Source Image: Eastern Mennonite Missions

Nguyen Quang Trung spent 30 years trying to get the Mennonite church recognized and registered by the government of Vietnam so that believers could meet and worship legally. When he finally succeeded, he celebrated the triumph with the words of the apostle Paul: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8).

Nguyen, a pastor and two-time president of Hội Thánh Mennonite Việt Nam (Vietnam Mennonite Church), died on March 23 at age 84. He was known for his “patient persistence” and “tireless efforts to promote and legally confirm a Mennonite presence in Vietnam,” Gerry Keener, former head of Eastern Mennonite Missions, told Anabaptist World.

Nguyen was born in Gia Dinh, an industrial area outside Saigon. His mother died when he was five. His father was a committed Christian who raised him in the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

In his 20s, Nguyen found himself drawn to the Mennonites, spending a lot of time in a reading room established by the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. He took classes on English and the Bible and learned the Anabaptist teachings about nonviolence.

“The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also empowers us to love enemies,” the missionaries taught Nguyen, “to forgive rather than to seek revenge, to practice right relationships, to rely on the community of faith to settle disputes, and to resist evil without violence.”

Nguyen embraced the idea that Christians should “follow Christ in the way of peace” and practice “nonresistance,” even if they faced persecution and death.

The Vietnam War was ramping up at the time. The US government falsely claimed that two destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin were attacked by Communist forces from North Vietnam in August 1964, and Congress authorized President Lyndon Johnson to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

In the following year, the American president increased the number of troops in Vietnam from about 23,000 to nearly 185,000. Nguyen started working in the student reading room that same year and joined an effort to establish a Mennonite church in Saigon.

When the Communists won the civil war in 1975 and the US troops withdrew and the government of South Vietnam fell, Western missionaries were forced to leave the country, even if they were pacifists opposed to the war. As they left, Nguyen was asked to take leadership of the Mennonite church.

The church’s legal status was precarious, according to a history of Mennonites in Vietnam. At one point a revolutionary committee shut the congregation down and confiscated the building—only to return the property and allow the church to reopen two days later. Another time, a Communist official took up residence in the building and his security team would not allow worshippers on the property.

In 1978, officials in the renamed Ho Chi Mihn City required all churches to register with the government. The Mennonites did not manage to complete the process by the deadline and were shut down permanently. Some church leaders were denounced as counterrevolutionaries and interrogated. And some were ordered to leave their homes and relocate to rural areas that the government wanted to open to agricultural development.

Nguyen encouraged people to attend any evangelical church they could, sending Mennonites to Baptists and Christian and Missionary Alliance congregations that had successfully registered. He continued to minister to them one-on-one, though, meeting and praying with about 70 Mennonites in the area.

In 1983, the church tried to start meeting again. Sometimes as many as 70 came to a worship service, though often only a few believers gathered to pray.

Nguyen attempted to register his home as a church and was also required to register each gathering with the government. The requests were not always granted. Even when they were, police often interrupted and broke up services. Nguyen was frequently detained and interrogated.

He consistently maintained that the Mennonite church was not a threat to good order and not seeking to undermine the Communist government. He quoted the church’s motto: The Mennonites were “living the gospel, serving God, and serving the nation and the people.” He argued that the church taught and encouraged people to live a good life, be at peace with their neighbors, and work for the good of all.

Mennonites were “beautiful and pious,” Nguyen said, and wanted to help Vietnam become “more civilized, prosperous, and beautiful.” He translated the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective into Vietnamese and gave it to officials to review.

“The church is the spiritual, social, and political body that gives its allegiance to God alone. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we trust in the power of God’s love for our defense,” the confession says. But “governing authorities of the world have been instituted by God for maintaining order in societies. … As Christians we are to respect those in authority and to pray for all people.”

The Mennonite church organized several humanitarian operations in cooperation with the government during this time, including flood relief in the Quang Ngai province and the Dong That province in the Mekong Delta.

Nguyen nevertheless struggled to get legal recognition for the church. In 1995, officials told him that he could not have any more worship services in his home and that if he tried, they would seize his house.

Through all that harassment, the Mennonite community continued to grow. Nguyen personally baptized about 150 people into the Mennonite congregation in Ho Chi Mihn City and nearly 300 in Quang Ngai.

The Mennonites were finally allowed to meet again in Ho Chi Mihn City in 2006 and, with support from Canadian Mennonites, recognized as a legitimate religious body throughout Vietnam in 2008.

Nguyen was named the denomination’s president. At the first denominational gathering, he thanked God for protecting the church throughout its difficult history.

“Now we can open a new church,” he said. “We can organize a Bible training school.”

Within four years, the Mennonite church had grown to 90 congregations with about 6,000 baptized believers. The church had 138 ordained ministers in the major cities and 15 serving in rural areas. Nguyen, who retired in 2016, said whether the Mennonite church in Vietnam was persecuted or allowed to flourish, it would live or die to the Lord.

He is survived by his wife, Ngo Thi Bich, and their three children.

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