A Vibrant Minority


Of the 160,000 Vietnamese-Americans in Orange County, 32 percent are Christians, and their number is growing robustly, Rev. Christian Phan, secretary general of the Vietnamese Baptist Fellowship, told The Beat in an interview. By contrast, only eight percent of the population of Vietnam is Christian, according to a recent Hanoi government report.

Most Vietnamese Christians in Orange County are Catholics; Protestants make up less than 2 percent, said Phan, who is pastor of a Baptist church in Seattle, Wash. The majority of those Protestants are converts from Buddhism, he added, pointing out that this was particularly so in the case of Baptists.

Father Tuyen Van Nguyen of St. Callistus Roman Catholic Church in Garden Grove, Cal., said that no religious tension of any kind marred the relations between Vietnamese Buddhists and Christians in Orange County. “We live peacefully with one another. I respect their belief… and they respect our belief.” Nguyen made clear that while the two faith groups did not worship together, they participated in joint human rights rallies. Within the Catholic Diocese of Orange County, 15 churches have Vietnamese congregations.

Father Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in a Catholic family. One of nine children, he escaped by boat in 1982 and became a US citizen in 1987. Today, Nguyen pastors some 3,500 Vietnamese parishioners.  In the last ten years ago, the number of Vietnamese Catholics in Orange County had grown from 40,000 to 50,000, he said.

According to Nguyen, between 10 and 20 new members of Vietnamese descent join his parish every year. He added that some of his congregants became converts as a result of faith experiences after the fall of Saigon in 1975, although most Vietnamese Catholics living in the United States were either born into Catholic families or baptized while still in Vietnam.

In addition to the 50,000 Catholics, some 800 Vietnamese-American Baptists, 2,000 members to the Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA), 300 to 400 Methodists and 400 Presbyterians live in Orange County. Approximately 500 Vietnamese-Americans in this area belong to Pentecostal, Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventist and other denominations.

No denominational rancor divides Christians in this community, according to Nguyen. “We are brothers and sisters, we have the same God… we respect Buddhism, we respect Buddhists, [but] evangelicals or Protestants are closer to us, so I respect them and I would expect them to respect us the same… there’s no animosity.”

When asked whether the Protestants or the Catholics were doing better in gaining converts from other faiths, Nguyen replied that he did not really pay much attention to that. “If more people join [either] congregations, it would be good… because [this would mean that] more people believe in God, and God is love and it’s a good thing to have more people are serving and sharing love with one another.” -- OLEN KITTELSEN