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HOUSTON — For many American churches, a Sunday potluck might feature casseroles, buckets of chicken and salads with crushed chips on top.
At the Vietnamese Church of Christ in this ethnically diverse metropolis, fellowship meals happen differently. The meal is a gateway of sorts, introducing visitors to the culture of a church community that doesn’t seem in a hurry to eat and get on with the day.
The main dish is prepared on site, and the menu rarely varies because it’s so anticipated by those who attend: seasoned spare ribs, rice, noodles with fish sauce, salad and homemade desserts.
Outside the Northwest Church of Christ’s youth room, where the Vietnamese congregation meets while raising money for its own building, men set up canopies emblazoned with Houston Texans logos to provide shade from the searing sun. They huddle underneath and prepare the beef in stages, thinly slicing ribs and marinating them with a blend of traditional Vietnamese seasonings.
These ribs are laid upon a sizzling grill, hot flames hissing at the contact. A breeze carries the tantalizing smells inside the crowded room where Hung Nguyen preaches, causing children to whisper excitedly to each other.
The youngest children babble in a blend of Vietnamese and broken English, while school-aged youngsters have a mastery of the language that comes from immersion in Houston-area public schools. Some of the adults speak both English and Vietnamese. A translator — sometimes one of the children — helps bridge any language barriers.
The tantalizing meal does the same, giving church members a way to engage their guests in conversation beyond what can happen in moments snatched before or after worship when everyone is looking at the clock.
Food is a universal language, as the saying goes. Showing hospitality is Scriptural.
The Vietnamese congregation of roughly 30 souls assembles in a small white structure. It’s across the parking lot from the beige brick facility where the Northwest church conducts its Bible classes and worship.
The Northwest church — a bilingual body of about 200 English and Spanish speakers — welcomed the Vietnamese group to use its youth room a few years ago.
“We take the Lord’s Supper in both languages — English and Spanish — and then we go to separate services for preaching,” said Northwest elder Julio Cedeño, a Venezuelan immigrant who frequently strides across the parking lot to fellowship with his Vietnamese family. “So we really do believe a lot about letting people get God’s message in their own language.”
The relationship with the Vietnamese congregation began when Hao Vu, a Northwest member who fled the communists when Saigon fell in 1975, brought three leaders of a Protestant church to see the elders and minister Jim Middleton.
“They were looking for a place to hold services, but brother Vu taught them that they had a greater need,” Middleton said.
As a result of Bible studies, the three men — including minister Hung Nguyen — were baptized. Later, more members of the Protestant church decided to be immersed for the remission of sins.
“He love Jesus,” Vu said of Hung Nguyen’s ministry prior to studying with the Northwest leaders. “He preach almost correct except for baptism.”
“I have a big change in my mind about the salvation,” Hung Nguyen said.
Houston became a haven for Vietnamese refugees when it welcomed tens of thousands of “boat people” in the 1970s.
About 73,000 residents of Harris County, where Houston is located, speak Vietnamese in their homes, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The Texas city is home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans outside of California.
Vu, a retired engineer, said he is unaware of any other Vietnamese Church of Christ in the U.S.
Vu grew up Catholic but was baptized as an adult in Vietnam after he began studying the Bible and met a U.S. military chaplain. The chaplain told him about a church that seemed closest to the one he read about in the Scriptures, Vu said.
For nearly four decades, Vu has dreamed about building a church in the U.S. for people to worship in his native language.
“Brother Vu is one of the most evangelistic men I’ve known,” Cedeño said. “He’s awesome.”
Vu and his wife, Tanya Nguyen, put a $160,000 lien on their house in Hockley, a 45-minute drive from Northwest, to buy property on which to build a Vietnamese church.
“I know that this life is temporary,” Vu said of his willingness to put the couple’s own financial security at risk. “The next life is a new life.”
Tanya Nguyen said her husband supported her longtime dream to build an orphanage in Vietnam. Likewise, she wanted to support his dream to secure a permanent worship site for Vietnamese Christians. (Tanya Nguyen is not related to the minister, Hung Nguyen. Nguyen is a common name in Vietnam, where wives do not take their husband’s surname.)
“One night I sleep, and I hear God reminding me, ‘Why don’t you buy it?’” Tanya Nguyen said of the land. “So in the morning, I say, ‘Honey, we need to buy the land.’ So he was very happy. He couldn’t believe it.”
The couple’s passion for a permanent and more visible home for the church spread to their adult children and other family members, who also have given, Tanya Nguyen said.
Behind the wheel of her small truck, she negotiates traffic and navigates easily between stories of family in Vietnam and the U.S.
Under a bright blue sky on a corner spot across from a large housing development, a handful of church members step out of vehicles and tread uneven terrain to a large white sign.
“Future Vietnamese Church of Christ Houston,” it proclaims in red and blue.
The men and women clasp hands, and Vu prays for a day when those gathered can reach out to the surrounding area from a place where they can teach Christ, serve the community and worship together.
In the eyes of Vietnamese people, a permanent building will give credibility to the church, Vu said.
Hung Nguyen agreed.
“The church is people. That is most important,” the minister said, speaking through a translator. “However, the building is also important for us to get together. It’s important for the people to have a place to meet and worship God.”
TO HELP: Send checks earmarked for “Vietnamese building fund” to the Northwest Church of Christ at 6720 West Tidwell Road, Houston, TX 77092.
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