This story of the Binh Thanh congregation in Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) begins in the weeks following the People’s Revolutionary Army’s takeover on April 30, 1975.
The following excerpts are taken from: Luke Martin, Nguyen Quang Trung, Nguyen Thanh Tam and Nguyen Thi Tham, “The Mennonite Church in Vietnam,” in Churches Engage Asian Traditions: A Global Mennonite History (Intercourse, Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2011), pp. 325-330.
The Revolutionary Period
Fear of living under a communist government, fear of reprisals, and fear of an unknown future had caused unimaginable panic among much of the urban population in preceding weeks. The rapid rout (326) of the Saigon armies by the swift movement of the revolutionary military forces, the flight of the civilians from many cities in central Vietnam, and frightful rumors had combined to propel many people to leave the country. But most of the church members stayed.
The next days and weeks saw many changes affecting all religious groups with South Vietnam. The entire leadership team of the Binh Thanh Mennonite congregation was intact except for Pastor Quang. The congregation elected Nguyen Quang Trung to administer the church and the community center, and assigned some pastoral ministries to Nguyen Huu Lam. The Rang Dong School closed, but the social programs and the clinic continued for a time.
Some of the church members who had fled the countryside during the war now returned to their fields. One of these farmers was killed when his hoe detonated unexploded ordnance in his field. But two-thirds of the congregation remained in the city.
The local government revolutionary committee confiscated the Binh Thanh church center of May 23, although the church auditorium and parsonage were returned two days later. But there was more trouble to come. Lam, living alone at the church center, invited a local government official to move in, and by September it was difficult for the church to meet there due to the armed guards.
At this point the congregation was approached by Mr. Nguyen Thanh Long, an Evangelical Church layman and member of the National Liberation Front presidium of Ho Chi Minh City, who was working to unite all the evangelical churches into a United Evangelical Church. Believing he could assist them in evicting the governmental official and his armed guards, the congregation joined this united church.
In early October the congregation signed an agreement with the Department of Education for the classrooms to be used as a public school since private schools were no longer permitted to operate. Most of the previous teachers were retained, and the school—which kept the Rang Dong name—reopened with around 700 students in two levels (grades 1-5, 6-12). The church was permitted to use the auditorium for congregational meetings.
The crowd attending the traditional Christmas Eve service included some who had already moved back to the countryside and returned for this special occasion. By this time the local district People’s Committee and the Fatherland Front required all churches and pagodas to register their religious activities and special holiday celebrations with the local authorities….
(327) The Binh Thanh congregation continued to meet until 10 June 1978 when the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City confiscated the church properties. Many other church and pagoda properties through the country were also confiscated….
In the first years after the revolution some religious leaders—Buddhist bonzes, Catholic priests and Evangelical Church pastors—were imprisoned and many worship centers closed. Some of the leaders of the Binh Thanh congregation were denounced by local authorities and detained for a short time. There was pressure exerted on those without employment to move out into New Economic Zones, a government program to depopulate the city and to exploit untilled land, often in areas with poor soil and little rainfall.
Trung encouraged believers of the Mennonite church remaining in the area to attend the Grace Baptist congregation or other Evangelical Church congregations in Ho Chi Minh City that still remained open.
This next decade was a difficult time in Vietnam. Though the country was now united, outside aid ended and trade was restricted; life became extremely difficult for most people. Many people fled the country by boat. Tens of thousands of military officers and some civilian leaders associated with the former government were imprisoned in re-education camps. Even though many religious leaders were imprisoned, courageous Christian pastors continued their ministry.…
(328) In 1986 the government began to implement a market economy which slowly led to improved economic and social freedom for the whole society. Already in 1983 Nguyen Quang Trung, now functioning as pastoral leader of the Mennonite church in Vietnam, invited believers to meet to worship the Lord in his home in Binh Thanh district. Sometimes only a few people gathered; as many as seventy came to a Christmas celebration.
Permission had to be requested from the local authorities for each meeting. The church experienced much harassment; often consent was not granted before the time of the announced meetings and, even with permission, security police sometimes dismissed the meetings.
Pastor Trung, who supported his family by teaching English, reported in 1988 that there were thirty families totaling 200 persons related to the Mennonite church, most of them living in Binh Thanh district of Ho Chi Minh City. Some of these had recently come to faith. A new church council was formed, and the congregation made plans to resume regular meetings for Bible study, fellowship, and worship.
Trung contacted local and city representatives of the People’s Committee and the office of religious affairs, requesting that the church properties be returned to the church. As of this writing, the government has not yet done so….
(329) In the late 1990s local authorities still would not give permission for the congregation to regularly meet for worship, and even threatened to confiscate Trung’s home if meetings were held there. Church members tried to meet monthly in homes. On occasion the congregation would meet on Sunday afternoons in the facilities of an Evangelical Church congregation nearby.
Pastor Trung became more active in teaching and instructing for baptism, and rented vans to take new Christians to nearby lakes for baptism. Over a period of (330) a few years Trung baptized 150 believers into the Binh Thanh congregation, and nearly 300 believers in Quang Ngai province of central Vietnam. During this difficult period church leaders committed their lives to deal with all kinds of needs, motivated by the Lord’s call to carry out the Great Commission entrusted to them.
It was not until 2003 that the Binh Thanh congregation again began meeting for worship regularly on Sunday afternoons in a rented property on a main street. When this was closed after eight months at the request of authorities, the congregation soon rented a small place in a back street.