Azen Jaffe: Today is September 6th, 2019 and I am speaking with Pastor Nguyen. Could you start by just introducing yourself, telling me your full name and maybe just a little bit about yourself.
Thai Nguyen: I am Thai Nguyen, I am a senior pastor at Hope Vietnamese Baptist Church in Portland. I have been at the church since 2005. That's about it—at our church, most of our church members are Vietnamese. Whatever we do, we speak Vietnamese most of the time.
AJ: Before 2005, were you in Oregon?
TN: I was in Colorado.
AJ: Where in Colorado?
TN: Denver, Colorado.
AJ: How long had you lived in Denver?
TN: For five years.
AJ: Originally, are you from Vietnam?
TN: Yes, I was in Vietnam.
AJ: What part of Vietnam are you from?
TN: The center of Vietnam.
AJ: Can you tell me anything about your background there? How old were you when you left?
TN: I left Vietnam in 1981. I escaped Vietnam by boat with my brother, we came to Indonesia and we stayed there for a year and half. Then we came to California, the Bay Area, and stayed there for a few years, then I moved to Colorado and from Colorado I moved to Oregon.
AJ: How old were you when you left in 1981?
TN: Sixteen years old.
AJ: Why did you end up leaving?
TN: Because we did not like the communist government.
AJ: Was there a sponsor in California? Is that why you went to California?
AJ: Who was your sponsor?
TN: His name is Robert Henry. I do not know if he is still alive or not.
AJ: Do you know why he sponsored you?
TN: He used to be a missionary to Vietnam in the sixties and my father worked for him. When I came to the US, we contacted him and right away he said, "Yes, we will sponsor you."
AJ: You moved first to California—how long exactly did you live there? I am sorry if I missed that.
TN: I think it was eighteen years.
TN: In the Bay Area. It was called San Rafael, in Marin County. It is north of the Golden Gate Bridge, about seven miles. North of the Golden Gate Bridge.
AJ: Did you have a religious background when you came to the United States?
TN: Yes, I was a Christian then.
AJ: Were you in any seminary school in Vietnam?
TN: No, I was too young then. But when I came to the US, I went to college and got my BA in Business Administration and after that I went to seminary and got my Master's Degree in Divinity.
AJ: Where did you go to college, then where did you go to seminary?
TN: I went to San Francisco State University for my BA, then my MDiv I went to Golden Gate Theological Seminary.
AJ: Did you speak any English when you came to the United States.
TN: No, no English at all.
AJ: So, can you talk a bit about what it was like moving here? Were there challenges that you faced?
TN: It was tough at first, I went to high school and did not know any English but I worked hard and studied really hard. After my freshman year, in order for me to graduate from high school I had to take a foreign language, so after the first year in high-school ... I took French. I studied French and English at the same time [laughs].
AJ: You said you came with your brother?
AJ: Was he older or younger than you?
TN: My older brother.
AJ: And it was just you two?
AJ: What did you do after you graduated from high-school?
TN: After I graduated from high-school, I went to college.
AJ: Right to college?
TN: Yes, right to college.
AJ: Why did you get a BA in Business Administration?
TN: I liked to do business. Also, I wanted my church to know how to use their money wisely.
AJ: So did you always want to be a religious leader?
TN: Yes, I always wanted to be a pastor.
AJ: How long was it before you started training in seminary school?
TN: I wanted to become a pastor—when I escaped Vietnam, on the boat we had a huge storm and immediately I knew that I would die there. I knew that if I died there then I would go to hell because I knew that I was a sinful person so I cried to God— know that Jesus is that one who came to Earth to die for the sins of the people of the world. We are all sinners and according to the Bible if you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior he will forgive your sins and once you die, you will go to heaven. That is what I did in the middle of the sea. I cried out to God and I said, "God, please forgive my sins and come into my life and save me. If you do that, the rest of my life is yours, I will serve you." I kept that commitment until now.
AJ: Wow, that is quite the journey. After school did you move immediately to Denver?
TN: No, after school I went to San Jose. You know San Jose, right?
AJ: Yeah, San Jose, California?
TN: Yeah, yeah. I was an associate pastor there for four years. And after that, our denomination wanted me to start a new church in Denver, Colorado. That is why I moved there, I planted a brand new Vietnamese church.
AJ: You started a new one?
AJ: How was that received in Denver?
TN: It grew really well. When I left there after about five years, it was about one hundred members, when I left.
AJ: The churches that you have been at, have they mostly all been majority Vietnamese?
AJ: Then you moved to Portland in 2005, why did you come here?
TN: The church that I pastored at that time, the senior pastor had a stroke and he could not serve anymore. The church called me and asked if I wanted to come here and serve. Since most of my family members are in the Bay Area right now, I wanted to be closer to my big family and also my wife's family too. So Denver to San Francisco is much farther than Portland to San Francisco, that is one of the reasons why we moved to Portland. Not only to serve this church but also to be closer to our family members.
AJ: So it was just you and your brother originally but then the other family met you in the Bay Area?
TN: Right, later on my brother and I sponsored my family from Vietnam.
AJ: Then you all lived together in California before you left for San Jose?
TN: Right, right.
AJ: How did you meet your wife?
TN: In the church in San Francisco.
AJ: And is she involved in this church here in Portland too?
TN: Yes, right now she and I work together to serve at Hope Vietnamese Baptist Church.
AJ: Great. I am asking a lot of questions but I am just trying to get a sense of your background. I hope it’s okay. Had you been to Portland before 2005?
TN: Yes, I had been to Portland a few times before that year to visit friends. I went by because I went up to Canada so we drove from San Francisco to Canada and we just went by Portland a few times.
AJ: What were some of your impressions of the city?
TN: At first, I think I came to Portland in 1989. I still remember the month—it was October, 1989. I thought the city was peaceful, a little bit small, it is much different now compared to then. That was my first impression.
AJ: How is it different now?
TN: It is much more crowded. And there are a lot more Vietnamese now than at that time.
AJ: What neighborhood did you move to?
TN: Right now we are in Happy Valley.
AJ: And where is the church located?
TN: It is in Portland, it is 148th and Division.
AJ: Can you tell me a bit more about the church? How large is it?
TN: We have about one hundred-fifty regular weekly attendance. We have all ages from eighties to newborn [laughs], almost all of them are Vietnamese. We have some Americans, they come worship with us but not regularly, they are more or less like visitors. We all speak in Vietnamese. We have activities during the week for the youth and young adults. On Sundays we worship.
AJ: That sounds great. What sort of activities do you do during the week?
TN: During the week, the youth come together for youth activities, and for young adults we do the same thing. On Saturday we come together, we have dinner, then we divide youth into one group and young adults into another group and we have activities, like we share our concerns or whatever blessings happened that week, we share with one another and any concerns so that we can pray for one another and support one another, and then we study the Bible.
AJ: Do the young adults typically stay with the church as they get older?
AJ: So there is a lot of families there?
TN: Yes. We have about eighty families.
AJ: Do you know when the church was founded?
TN: The church was founded twenty-five years ago.
AJ: And it was always called Hope Baptist Church?
TN: Right, Hope Vietnamese Baptist Church.
AJ: So you are the second pastor?
AJ: It sounds like you have been in a couple of different places around the country. Have you always been connected to the Vietnamese-American community?
TN: Yes, yes.
AJ: Are there some ways that you notice the communities are different depending on your location?
TN: Not much different—like when I was in California, people are much more aggressive than here. [laughs] I mean, their lives, they have to move really fast. They do not have time to sit around and talk. Even the way they drive when you go to California, especially in the Bay Area, you can see the way they drive is more aggressive than up here in Oregon. The way of thinking, talking about the Vietnamese community, it is about the same. They care for their families, they focus on their jobs and their children, the parents want to really help their kids to do good in school. They are all the same, except the life in different parts of the country—in Portland, Oregon, the life pace is much slower than California but the lifestyle here in Oregon is much faster compared to Colorado. In Colorado life is much slower, you do not have to worry too much.
AJ: Where in Denver was your church, just out of curiosity?
TN: It was in Denver, in the south of Denver.
AJ: I forgot to ask, what did your parents do in Vietnam?
TN: My parents, they are farmers.
AJ: Did they come to the United States eventually?
AJ: What was that transition like for them?
TN: At first they did not like it, they just wanted to go back to Vietnam, but after a year or so they got used to it. Right now, they are still alive in their late eighties but if you ask them if they want to go back to Vietnam and live there they would say no. Visiting is okay but they do not want to live there, they love it here in the US.
AJ: Have you been back to visit?
TN: Not yet.
AJ: Is that something you are interested in?
TN: Yes, I am too busy, that is the problem. One time about five years ago I got my ticket but at the last minute I had to cancel.
AJ: In your mind, what are some of the most important ways that you offer support to your congregation and your community?
TN: First of all, there is spirituality. They need to be strong in their inner lives. In order to do that, they have to have faith, faith in God who can help them to go through life no matter what happens to them. Secondly, they need to have a community where they can build up one another, support one another—not just their spiritual lives but to be there when someone is in need of help. The community is very important, and through that community we focus on how to build a strong family. The family unit is so crucial for this society—society consists of families and if you have strong families, you have a strong society. If you have strong families you have strong cities, and if you have strong cities you have strong states, if you have strong states you have strong nations, if you have strong nations you have a strong world. That is how I see it. But it always starts with the individual, so that is my focus, helping individuals to become better citizens by helping them to have a solid spiritual, psychological, mental, spiritual life. So when they are strong, they are healthy spiritually, mentally, and psychologically, they can do anything.
[Azen Jaffe goes to check the door]
AJ: Are there ways that you have seen the Portland Vietnamese community change since you have been here?
TN: Since when?
AJ: Since 2005.
TN: There are more Vietnamese now than when I first came. They have gained more ownership, they buy houses and they don't have to rent as much compared to when I first came. That’s about it.
AJ: I think that I have worked through all of the questions that I have written, but do you think that there are other things that I should ask or are there other things that you would like to talk about while we are here?
TN: Let’s see—no, not really.
AJ: … I am going to close with saying that my name is Azen Jaffe and I was speaking with Thai Nguyen on September 6th, 2019. Thank you so much.