TAMPA - The Rev. Sabrina Tu recalled how her maternal grandparents were part of the first few hundred people in Vietnam to become followers of Jesus.
“My grandfather came from a prominent Buddhist family who supported the temple,” noted the Vietnamese-American pastor, who serves at Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Tampa. “They visited a mission and they saw people get healed, they witnessed miracles. My grandfather said, ‘This is not about religion, this is about relationship.’”
Tam Tran and Nhan Nguyen both accepted Christ. They became faithful Christians, tithing from their fields, chickens and pigs, Tu continued, and people began to look at them differently.
“They practiced this new-found faith,” she added. “So my mom, she grew up in a Christian home. What really stood out were the words ‘faith’ and ‘prayer’. My grandparents really had to pray and depend on belief and faith in God.”
Rev. Sabrina Tu and her mother, Nam Tran, standing and looking at her grandparent's graves in 1994; when Tu went back to Vietnam for the first time since fleeing the country. Photo courtesy of Rev. Sabrina Tu.
A Christian Missionary Alliance pastor named Dr. R.A. Jaffray established the first Protestant mission to French Indo-China in 1911. By 1967, there were only an estimated 150,000 Protestant Christians in South Vietnam, around 1 percent of the country’s population at the time. Today approximately 1.5 million Vietnamese call Christ their Lord.
Tu was just six years old when South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975. “We were persecuted because we were Christian,” she said. “The government confiscated Bibles and hymnals. Then on Sunday mornings they made my parents work in the labor camp so they couldn’t worship.”
Her grandparents, still full with the faith they first claimed in 1911, fasted and prayed and then encouraged Tu and her parents to escape.
“We left by boat in July 1977,” Tu continued. “We were smuggled out in a small fishing boat (20’ x 12’). There were 44 people on board, including me, my sister Thuan (Chris), my brother Dai (David), my father, Khon Tu, and my mother, Nam Tran. My grandparents stayed, but they knew we had a better future.”
Tu’s family were prominent, well-to-do members of their community, but the family lost everything on the three-day boat ride, robbed by pirates and going without food and water for two of the days. “My mom told me to pray. I remember clearly saying, ‘God, if you spare my life I will serve you the rest of my life.’”
The family arrived at the refugee camp in Thailand with just a blanket and a Bible. Eventually they found a sponsor in the U.S. Tu’s call to ministry may have been born on that boat ride, but found its definition in response to the multicultural ministry God led her to after she graduated from Southeastern University in Lakeland.
“Pastoral ministry was a whole step of faith,” she said. “I was the only female in homiletics class. It was very foggy. But that’s my journey; God does not give me a whole map. It’s quite interesting to follow that path.”
Tu said God touched her heart to reach out to refugees, and she became a translator with World Relief, a non-profit dedicated to the mission of “Stand for the Vulnerable.”
“I’d help people fill out forms, obtain Social Security cards. Then, while we would wait, God opened the door for me to share the Gospel.”
Tu led a Bible study that grew until it became a church. The church shifted premises so often it adopted the name, “Church on the Move.” Tarpon Springs UMC (then pastored by the Rev. Herb Lange) extended gracious hospitality as the Church on the Move nested there before joining the UMC denomination in 1999.
“We were there (Tarpon Springs) until 2002,” Tu explained. “Then the influx of refugees had slowed and we adopted a new strategy, to reach out to first and second generation immigrants in Tampa. Oak Grove UMC welcomed us in 2003.”
In the meantime, Tu attended graduate classes at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando. She gained her provisional elder status in 2009 and worked with St. John UMC in Tampa until 2010, when she was appointed to Oak Grove.
Today she leads two very different congregations on the same campus. It’s a cross-cultural ministry that highlights the challenges of merging traditions, ethnicities and cultural diversity.
“The congregations are unique and diverse,” Tu said. “The Asian-American (congregation)—Church on the Move—is a much younger congregation; the majority have accepted Christ here. They didn’t grow up in church, so there’s no baggage. The Caucasian—Oak Grove—congregation is 130 yrs old. Some people have been here 50 to 60 years. They are very rooted and they do have baggage. The younger demographic is more interested in mission in a changing community. The two different congregations own two distinct visions.”
Tu is working on a doctor of ministry dissertation that seeks to examine “How to equip and empower second generation Asian-Americans to be the leaders of the church”.
“If we go back to the Bible,” Tu asserted, “faith is very basic but very powerful. American culture adds on all these components and insists everyone has to do it ‘this way.’ But everybody is very different. We need to embrace diversity and we need to learn from one another; a broader horizon and perspective.”
Working with immigrants and people who are new to the U.S. has helped Tu to appreciate some of the fundamental values that can be lost when faith is tied up so inextricably with one particular culture.
“In North America, in some ways we take faith very lightly,” she said. “We depend more on the circumstances of life than on the Savior. We let the economy rule as to how the church runs. But this economy should give us a great opportunity for the message to be shared. People can’t depend on a big house, or a job; all that is just a decoration of their life. It boils down to the basics: Do they have that relationship with our Savior?”
Last month, Tu’s Church on the Move congregation celebrated the Lunar New Year, incorporating traditional Asian observance into a combined worship experience with commonality in Jesus.
The pastor will not be travelling to Vietnam for the June celebrations due to budget constraints. But she is proud that her grandparents’ conversion in 1911 helped to set so much faithful witness into motion. Evangelist Luis Palau is scheduled to lead a crusade in Vietnam in April and June. It will be the first foreign mission venture in the nation since the fall of Saigon in 1975.
“It is hoped that one million Vietnamese Christians will come from all over the world,” Tu noted.
Some overall statistics:
- The population of Vietnam is currently 85 million
- Approximately three million Vietnamese live in more than 100 countries outside their home country
- According to the United Nations, Vietnam is ranked 13th among the most populous countries
- Vietnamese ranks among the top twenty languages spoken today
- The literacy rate among Vietnamese is 90.3%
- In 1975 there were 15,000 Christians in Vietnam
- There are an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Vietnam today.
News media contact: Cary McMullen, 800-282-8011, firstname.lastname@example.org, Lakeland
*McMullen is managing editor of the e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.