On April 19, 1995, An Nguyen sat in his Portland, Ore. home watching events unfold in downtown Oklahoma City.
“My coffee mug was shaking, and emotion overwhelmed me,” recalled Nguyen. “As I looked at the faces of the people, I saw fear and desperation, but I also saw something else—faith.”
The bombing of the Murrah Building changed the direction of Nguyen’s life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been in Oklahoma City visiting a group of Christian believers at Oklahoma City, Northwest.
Northwest was looking for a pastor to shepherd a Vietnamese congregation, and had been led to Nguyen.
Nguyen and his wife, Quan, had a successful and vibrant ministry in the Northwestern United States and had no desire to move to Oklahoma City.
“I was assistant pastor in my church, and had begun a network of lay youth leaders across the western states and Canada,” explained Nguyen. “Things were going well, and we had an effective ministry.”
A move to Oklahoma City was first suggested to Nguyen by Minh Dang, a young pastor in Ohio who had been invited to speak at a winter camp Nguyen was leading.
Dang had talked with someone in Oklahoma City, and when he observed Nguyen, he said he had a strong sense of the Spirit leading Nguyen to the Vietnamese in Oklahoma. Nguyen politely told Dang he would pray about it.
When Dang called a few days later, and asked if God had revealed His plan to him, Nguyen said he had forgotten to pray about it, but promised Dang he would.
“I began to have a sense about Oklahoma City,” Nguyen admitted. “I studied Oklahoma City on the Internet.”
An Oklahoma City medical doctor contacted Nguyen and told him he had talked with the leadership at Oklahoma City, Northwest, and they were interested in starting a Vietnamese congregation, and would like Nguyen to come for a visit.
“Both my wife and I had a compassion as we saw the Vietnamese community in Oklahoma City,” Nguyen said. “But we were so established in the Northwest, we felt it would be hard to leave.”
Although the Nguyens had no relatives or friends in Oklahoma City, they began to have a burden for the city. And Pastor Anthony L. Jordan began to contact them.
“My wife and I asked for seven signs—the perfect number,” said Nguyen. “In six weeks, every sign turned yes but one. My wife didn’t want to move.”
As Nguyen watched the aftermath of the bombing, he called his wife at work, and said, “Is God showing us a sign not to go to Oklahoma City?”
To his surprise, she replied, “No, I think God needs us there.”
Both An’s and Quan’s journeys to Oklahoma City are filled with drama. Both were born in Vietnam and lived through the infamous war.
An grew up in a Christian home, but Quan’s family was steeped in the Buddhist faith.
An became a Christian when he was 15, but by 1975, when North Vietnam took over the South, everyone had to identify their religion.
“If you were a Christian, you could not have a government job, you couldn’t teach and it was difficult to get into the universities,” said Nguyen. “You essentially had no future.”
Nguyen was serving as a lay person in his church when it was closed by the government and its pastor put in jail.
“The government then went after lay leaders looking for them in their homes, and I spent many a night in a coffee shop until a brave Christian would rescue us and take us to their home,” Nguyen related. “They would be in trouble with the government if it was discovered they were hiding us.”
Nguyen said he had no regular job, although he taught piano, and was not effective in his country anymore. His family encouraged him to escape to the United States.
“I said I would try one time, and if it wasn’t successful, I wouldn’t try to leave again,” Nguyen revealed.
He got on a boat headed for Malaysia with 50 other people. What usually took only a few days took this weary group of travelers 19 days because the boat’s engine broke and they floated on the ocean for days, running out of food and water.
But it was on this boat that God spoke to Nguyen, telling him He wanted Nguyen to serve Him fulltime.
“I knew I had been living in denial, but God made it very clear to me He wanted me to surrender to Him,” Nguyen said. “This happened on the 18th day, and without food or water, I was confused, but what God said to me was clear in my mind. He told me He wanted me to say it out loud to the two buddies I had made friends with on the trip. I told them that God told me we would be rescued the next day.”
At 9 a.m. the next morning, the group was rescued by a Malaysian fishing boat.
“When my foot first hit the sand, I said, ‘Lord, I will serve You,’” Nguyen recalled.
He stayed in a refugee camp in Malaysia for nine months before going to the Philippines, where he studied English and the American culture in preparation for his trip to the U.S. While there, he met Quan, and led her to the Lord.
When he arrived in Portland, he stayed with his uncle, who was a pastor.
“He was the greatest influence and mentor in my life, but he died six months after I got there,” Nguyen said.
“He mapped out my future for me, and said I should get college and seminary degrees.”
Nguyen graduated from Portland State University, Conservative Baptist Seminary of Portland and Bethel Seminary in Minnesota.
While in Portland, he continued to correspond with Quan, who had settled in Virginia, sending her material for new believers. He flew to Virginia when she was baptized.
“We corresponded through snail mail and cassette tapes, and were married in Virginia in 1992,” he said.
Since Nguyen became pastor, the little Vietnamese congregation at Northwest, has increased to an average attendance of 150-200, and purchased a building in which to worship.
Nguyen, who still has a burden for his native country, made his first trip back to Vietnam in 1996, but said he found no opportunities to serve there, and was constantly watched.
By 2008, he returned to a country more open, but still without complete freedom to worship. The pastor and members of his congregation are continuing mission trips to the area and serve also in Malaysia, where there are more than 100,000 Vietnamese Christian workers.
On our last trip, we put together a program of music, drama, games and such,” Nguyen said. “We did it on a big scale in Malaysia, but had to tone it down in Vietnam, working through a local church.”
The mission group did do a New Year’s service in a four-star hotel in Vietnam, which was billed as a “gathering of friends.” Yet through testimonies at the event, 10 people accepted Jesus as their Savior.
“There still is not total freedom to minister in Vietnam, but the people who live there know how to work through the cracks to do ministry,” Nguyen said. “Our mission here is to send resources back to Vietnam. Fifteen percent of our budget goes to do work in my native country.”