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Thi Nguyen with Tuong Nguyen and his wife Loan Nguyen of Bayou la Batre, Alabama. Lien Dinh

Thi Nguyen with Tuong Nguyen and his wife Loan Nguyen of Bayou la Batre, Alabama. Lien Dinh

Nguyen serves in Bayou la Batre, Alabama

By Cathryn Clinton
June 18, 2008

AKRON, Pa. – When Thi Nguyen received a call from a friend saying that the Mennonite Central Committee East Coast was looking for someone to connect with the Vietnamese community in response to Hurricane Katrina, he did not hesitate to say yes.

Nguyen's family left Vietnam on a boat and spent three years in a refugee camp in Thailand. He was 7 when they finally arrived in the United States. He grew up in the Philadelphia area, where his family has a business.

Nguyen says that he wanted success by following his own way, but things didn't go as he planned. He gave his life to God and got involved with the Vietnamese Mennonite Church in Philadelphia.

For two years, Nguyen served the Vietnamese community in a variety of ways, including playing the piano in church, but he always believed that God had another plan for him in the future.

In partnership with the MCC Gulf Disaster Response out of Central States, on October 17, 2006, Nguyen began his service worker assignment in disaster relief. He divided his time between Lutheran Disaster Services, Mennonite Disaster Service in Bayou la Batre, Ala., and Way of Life Community Church in Mobile, Ala.

When Nguyen began his work with Way of Life Community Church he discovered the community in Bayou la Batre was different from the one he'd known. The people in Bayou la Batre live in close proximity to one another and know each other, whereas in Philadelphia people are more dispersed.

In addition, Nguyen found that language barriers isolated the Vietnamese community in Alabama. Many Vietnamese residents don't speak English, and therefore, don't know about resources available to them, even though they may have lived there for 30 years.

Nguyen's role gradually changed from disaster relief; he began working more with social service activities, but he didn't want to treat people only as clients. As he honored their privacy and treated them with respect, he established relationships.

He visited and listened, sometimes for a whole day. Many friendships developed, and now he sees their trust as they call on him for advice.

Nguyen says, "I come here with a calling of the Lord. He wants me to love them. I'm willing to give my heart to them. He loved me, and I want to express this to others."

Nguyen provides transportation for elderly people and helps with translation regarding social assistance programs and immigration issues.

"I connect the people to the right place and resource. I'm there to be available. Sometimes I just listen to their stories."

He met Lac and Chi Trinh early in his work. Recently, Lac Trinh suffered from a stroke that disabled him severely, and he was unable to walk.

Nguyen wanted to help Trinh get the services he needed, but it was difficult to get him out of his trailer. Nguyen asked J.D. Landis, his mentor, to help him. Together they built Trinh a wheelchair ramp.

Now, Trinh is walking. Lien Dinh, Trinh's daughter, will be joining Nguyen in his work with children's programs this summer. As an MCC summer service worker, she will serve her home community for 10 weeks.

Pastor Tuyen Nguyen of the Vietnamese Mennonite Church in Philadelphia says, "We are fully behind Thi and J.D. Landis in this work. We pray for Thi and the people down there all the time."

Last summer, a team from Delaware and Philadelphia went to southern Alabama to help with a summer camp. Pastor Nguyen says he hopes to have another team go this summer.

With the financial help of Way of Life Community Church, the Vietnamese Mennonite Church in Philadelphia and the Good News Fellowship of Churches, a conference of Mennonite congregations in Alabama and Florida (Way of Life Community Church is a member), Nguyen plans to rent some space this summer. He will have a place for the seniors to gather. In addition, he will offer programs for children in tutoring and summer camps.

"I have been impressed with the commitment of the Vietnamese Mennonite Church in Philadelphia in sending Thi to minister in the community in Bayou la Batre as an MCC East Coast service worker,” says Ruth Keidel Clemens, MCC East Coast executive director. "This assignment has provided MCC East Coast with the opportunity to partner with two churches that have a common vision for ministry."

Nguyen says he has grown through the friendships and hospitality. He has also grown spiritually as he has seen God answer prayers.

Recovery in the Bayou la Batre community has been a slow process, but Nguyen says he is there with a long view. He hopes the investment and his efforts with the children will bring long-term results.

Nguyen has a vision to see the nearby Laotian and Cambodian communities served as well. He says his plan is simple. "I want to be contagious," he says, "Just model, so others will want to follow."