Dustin Kelley: Alright. My name is Dustin Kelley and today is August 12, 2020. I am with Pastor Cuong Ngo, and we are meeting via Zoom. I am in Watzek Library at Lewis & Clark College here in Portland, and I am happy to chat with Pastor Ngo today. Let's go ahead and begin by asking an overview question. Could you give us a summary of your life here in Portland? Where were you born, and when did you come to Portland?
Cuong Ngo: Yes, thank you Dustin once again for having me with you for this interview. I was born in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and we came to this country in 1989, thirty years ago. I attended art school in Portland, but after I finished the program, I received a call from God and I followed that call for the next seven years. After that I went back to Portland, and started my ministry here. It has been twenty years now.
DK: Wow, that is a long time to be back here in your career. Let's go back to the beginning. What part of Vietnam was your family from?
CN: We lived in the South and my father was a soldier in the southern army.
DK: What city were you from?
CN: It is called Long Khanh, it is about eighty kilometers from Saigon city.
DK: What was your childhood like?
CN: I did not really have my childhood, because it was wartime. I remember we just kept running, running from small town to another place, and for years I was on the road running, following my parents. It was a very chaotic time. After the war, 1975, I spent most of my days following my parents, going to forests, to the field to collect pieces of food left behind. It was a very hard time for everyone. I remember the years when I was around eight years old. I went with my father to a cemetery where we spent most of our days engraving tombstones for the fallen soldiers who invaded the South. We made a total of five thousand tombstones for the northern soldiers, yes. That was my childhood, engraving, carving the tombstones [laughing]. My childhood was surrounded by the dead, yes [laughing].
DK: That sounds very stressful for a young child. You mentioned coming to the United States in 1989. How old were you when you came to this country?
CN: Nineteen years old.
DK: Nineteen...You mentioned growing up in Vietnam during the war, what was your schooling like?
CN: I did not learn anything, because there we were taught about Communism, the ideology of Ho Chi Minh. There was nothing actually to learn?
DK: Were you not in a traditional school environment during the day?
CN: No. Most of the students were forced to work in the rubber plantation. I remember there were more days in the rubber plantation, working there, than being in a classroom. Even though we were very little, about twelve years old to eighteen years old. After we finished high school, we spent time, me and my friends, in the rubber plantation. They brought us from place to place to work there. Not like here in America.
DK: Was some of that, in part, because your father was a soldier for the South Vietnamese Army?
CN: Yes. There was no chance that I would be able to go to college. Most of the children born by a soldier’s family were not allowed to enter college. They may have been afraid that we would become leaders in the future, so they denied us that opportunity.
DK: You mentioned that there was a lot of loss experienced during that time and that you and your father worked on tombstones and were around a lot of the tragedies of the war. Did any of those tragedies directly affect your family? Either your immediate family or extended?
CN: Yes, yes. It was a nightmare to me as a child. During the wartime when we were running from our hometown in the middle of the night, I got lost, because I was so tired and falling asleep. When I woke up during the night, I did not see my parents or my siblings. They were gone. I was under a big and deep hole. I tried to climb up, to jump up, but I could not. I was very scared, I tried many times but I could not jump up on the surface to find my parents, to look for my parents. Suddenly there was someone standing by me. I could not recognize her face, but later on in my life I thought that it might have been an angel that was sent from God. Somehow she gave me strength, and helped me over the ditch. She pointed in one direction, and she said, "There are your parents, go, go." I ran, but because I was too little and because there were so many dead bodies on the ground, I fell and fell and fell from time to time. My parents were too far away from me. It took a long time for me to catch them, and if you can imagine it was very chaotic. The bombarding all over the place, bullets in all directions. Finally, I was able to reach the hand of my father, and when I could touch my father's hand I held my father's hand very tight. I did not want to leave that hand again.
After the war, because in my family there was a brother that my parents adopted -- and he was American Vietnamese child -- When they adopted him, he was about two months old, so after the war, the new regime treated us very badly. We were discriminated against, and every day when I walked with my brother to school, back home, he was surrounded by so many other children and they beat him from time to time. Eventually, my father asked me to go and study, to learn martial arts. I was the only one in the family who was allowed to learn martial arts to protect my brother. He is older than me, two years older. There was a day when I came back from work with my father. I ran to a soccer field, but I could not see anyone, because they were in a classroom trying to beat and to kill my brother. I ran to that classroom, and when I heard that they were beating my brother, I yelled out loud, “Whoever wants to fight, fight with me.” From that group of young people, there was a giant standing up, and I thought I was so wrong asking for a fight. We went into a huge, big hall. At that time I was about fourteen years old, and he was about twenty-five. He was a guard at that school, but somehow I beat him up. From that time on, he did not touch my brother. Many, many bad things happened during the war, and after the war. It was a very hostile environment to live in. It was crazy. When I left Vietnam for the Filipino refugee camp, my father committed his life to Jesus Christ, and he came home to ask all of us to follow him to a church. I was the only one who denied that invitation, but I got baptized in that refugee camp, because my mother cried day and night for a whole week. So I surrendered myself [laughs] because she cried so much. I did not believe in Jesus, but when I came here, as I mentioned, I received a call. I was living a very indulgent lifestyle. I was hospitalized because of lung collapse, and there was a friend of mine. He came to visit me and he gave me a small picture with Jesus kneeling, praying. That night I made my first petition, that if there is a God, make a miracle happen in my life, transform my heart. And he did. You know, the country that I thought I would never come back to visit, but after graduation from St. Mary, I have been back to Vietnam many times, around fifteen times. Doing a lot of evangelizing. The people that I used to hate, I went back there to share the gospel with them. The person who used to work for the prime minister of Vietnam -- he censored my sermons, because every sermon had to be censored. It had to be read and certified before a pastor could preach that sermon. But that person got baptized after the last sermon in 2010. I was the first pastor, a foreigner who was allowed to go back to Vietnam, to go into Vietnam to do public events. I was the first one since the Vietnam War [laughing], so it was a very historic event to me.
DK: That must have been a very emotional experience for you -- to go back, and revisit [that place] with all of your past experiences.
DK: You mentioned your parents, and your adopted sibling. Did you have any other brothers or sisters?
CN: Yeah, we are seven in total.
DK: Where were you? Are you one of the older or younger siblings?
CN: I am in the middle.
DK: You mentioned a Filipino camp?
CN: Yeah, a refugee camp.
DK: Can you explain how you ended up in the Filipino refugee camp?
CN: At the time there were many people who were allowed to come to America, but before we came to this country we needed to transition to a place where we would be informed of the culture, of the environment, of the new country, new land where we would live. There we were taught English, American culture. It was very helpful to all of us. Yes.
DK: What was it like when you were leaving Vietnam?
CN: It was sad to me. I was the only one who did not want to leave Vietnam, because at the time I had fallen in love with a girl. My first love, and now she is my wife. I knew her when she was thirteen and I was fifteen. To me she is my paradise, you know, heaven. Many people try their ways to escape from Vietnam to go to America, and they said to me that America is paradise, but to me whenever I am close to my lover is paradise to me.
DK: You have been together a long time.
CN: So you know for there to be another paradise somewhere out there.
DK: Did you leave Vietnam on separate occasions, you and her?
CN: Yes, separate occasions. Three years after I left Vietnam, her family came to America.
DK: Was your entire family able to leave Vietnam together?
CN: There was a brother who was stuck there because at the time he was in prison. He could not go with us, and he is still there. I have gone back there to visit him many times.
DK: Let's continue with some questions. Are there any organizations or friends who helped your family establish itself in the United States? Did you have any sponsors?
CN: There was an organization called the Lutheran [Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service], and there was a pastor helping us to settle our new life here in America. They treated us very, very well.
DK: Was your host in Portland when you first came to America?
CN: Yes, to Portland.
DK: What were your first impressions of Portland?
CN: It was cold, very cold. We came here around September, and September to me, you know -- the autumn time is really cold and then we had to face the winter. It was a very cold winter of our lives. So the weather is very oppressive to me.
DK: Fair enough.
CN: But now I would not be able to live with the weather in Vietnam. It is too hot for me. I got used to the cool weather.
DK: What neighborhood of Portland did you first live in?
CN: Yes, we first lived in an apartment on Foster and around the 50th [block] of Foster.
DK: Did you have a lot of Vietnamese neighbors?
CN: No. A few, a few.
DK: What was the neighborhood like? Can you give us some descriptions?
CN: It was peaceful. American people at the time, thirty years ago, welcomed us nicely. Anything we needed help with they were willing to help us with. Yes, a beautiful neighborhood.
DK: Was there a lot of diversity in your neighborhood?
CN: No, I did not see that.
DK: Were there events that brought people together in your community or places where you gathered like restaurants, shops, or religious institutions?
CN: Yes, we would go to church every Saturday but I spent many days in the week helping the pastor to help the newcomers from the refugee camp. So I work side by side with my pastor most of the time, especially during the summer time. Yes. So my new life here in this country is very much involved with church activities.
DK: What was the name of the church you attended?
CN: It was the Seventh-Day Adventist Church [Portland Vietnamese Seventh-Day Adventist Church], yes.
DK: And now that is the church you are the pastor of today, correct?
CN: Today, yes. It is on Clinton and Division. Seventy-fifth Clinton and Division, around that corner.
DK: Well I want to come back to some things about your congregation, but I want to keep focusing on your earliest memories of Portland at this time. So you mentioned just living in a quiet, peaceful neighborhood, not a lot of diversity. In what ways has that neighborhood changed since then, from 1989 to 2020?
CN: Maybe I did not pay that much attention to the diversity. To me because I lived with a brother -- American Vietnamese -- to me there was no color. I think for myself I see people as human rather than by color or languages. I think that is a gift that God has given me since I was little. You know, for me, I see people from whatever background, they say family, it is a family. Even now that picture is the same to me. America is so beautiful because we come from so many different backgrounds but we all come here with a dream. A dream to share, to give, to love, to do the best for one another... Yes. That might be the reason why I chose to come into the ministry. I wanted to pay it back. You know my brother and sisters and many thousands of Vietnamese young people choose a career to enhance their life, to advance their life here in this country. But I choose to come into the ministry in order to share and give back to America, to the society, the best [I could].
DK: How would you compare the Vietnamese community that grew up -- well I should not say grew up in -- when you came to Portland when you were nineteen -- how would you compare that to the community today?
CN: Well the big difference that I think many other people see that also -- When I came here. I observed everything very carefully and the one thing I was concerned about the most is the busyness of life. And with that, I knew that many parents did not have enough time to be close to their children. Back in Vietnam whatever we do, we do side by side with our parents. It is more of a community. We have got the tribal -- you know, we go together, we come home together, we eat together -- Everything is together as a team. But here, you know, everyone is at a corner. It takes a long time for a child to see their parents again. Eight hours, you know, from work to after work, school, after school. I knew at the time that lifestyle would result in a very chaotic society. Here we can see that going on. In America as a whole and in each city, yes, because the time [spent] between children and parents is not enough.
DK: Were there any challenges that you and your family faced when you moved to America?
CN: The language is the only one... and even now [laughs]. As you can see, yes.
DK: Well I think we are having a nice conversation and I can understand you very well. I think you are doing fantastic!
CN: Thank you for that encouragement.
DK: You are welcome.
CN: I speak in Vietnamese most of the time, you know. I preach in Vietnamese and spend most of my day talking to Vietnamese people. So this is the only one [time I have spoken English] for a long time.
DK: Well thank you for taking this opportunity to speak with us. I want to transition to your education and career if that is okay?
DK: Where did you receive your education once you came to America, and how well did they prepare you for your career and for life in general?
CN: I went to PCC, Portland Community College in Sylvania to study fine arts. Most of the time, you know, I spent with my canvas and my paints so I did not need to talk. You know, when my teachers saw my artwork and they knew I would not be able to speak English fluently, they said to me, "You do not have to talk because your art can talk for you." So I kept quiet most of the time for three years with not many opportunities to share and express myself in English, and that somehow advanced me into a theology major.
DK: Before we continue on with that, what type of art was your primary passion?
CN: My father is an artist. We have four artists in our family. The painting behind me is one of my paintings. I do oil paintings, watercolor, but mostly oil painting. I do a lot of portraits. Yes, so I started doing art when I was very little back in Vietnam. So when I came to America, I went into fine art. I already had that skill.
DK: For those listening, we are having a conversation via Zoom, and behind Cuong is a beautiful painting that he did where I see lots of trees and leaves, it looks like. It is just a gorgeous painting that he did.
CN: Thank you, Dustin.
DK: So you studied art at PCC and you felt a calling to become a pastor. What was the next step in your educational journey?
CN: After this fine art degree, I went to Walla Walla University in Washington to study theology. After I finished the Bachelor degree at Walla Walla University, I went to Andrews University in Michigan to study a master's degree and then after that doctoral degree in preaching.
DK: How long did all of that take?
CN: A long time, a long time [laughs] but I enjoy learning.
DK: So did you return to Portland immediately after finishing your doctoral degree in Michigan?
CN: After I finished my master's degree and after working here for six years I continued my education in a doctoral degree. Back and forth.
DK: So you had the opportunity to become the pastor at the church you had attended upon first moving to the United States.
DK: Can you describe what your church community was like when you first came to America and then also what is it like today, kind of compare the two? For instance, what are typical gatherings like? Do you have any special events that are important?
CN: Yes, years ago the former pastor focused on helping the newcomers come to this country. But to my generation, we are focusing on helping the community here. I mean American people, Latino people, any people. So every year during the wintertime we go to downtown Portland early in the morning around four o'clock when the weather is very cold sometimes, you know, ten degrees. I went with a group of forty young people sometimes with five, six, or eight year old children. They love to. They ask if they can come with us, sometimes with old people. We give blankets and toothbrushes and food bags -- something like that -- to the homeless people. To me the thing that I can do for this country is to prepare a good and new generation, Vietnamese American young people, to give back and enhance life wherever they live. During my ministry, I have been able to help a lot of teenagers who had no help from their parents. Most of them became scientists, doctors, educators, and we have three young people who followed the call of Christ and became pastors. One in Houston right now, one in California, and one has almost finished seminary at Andrews University and he will come back here to be side by side with me, doing ministry here.
DK: Oh, wow.
CN: Yes, he cherished the compassion and burden for this community in Portland helping the young people here.
DK: It sounds like you have a very close and tight-knit community. Can you describe what your church gatherings are like on Saturdays?
CN: We do not have many people because most young adults and adult people work on Saturday. For the Vietnamese community, most of them have jobs in hair salons, nails, and many work at factories or companies. They are required to work on Saturday, so as a result I am at the church with their children [laughs]. I am like a babysitter. We have young people helping me. Yes, for the holy days and for special events we have parents come a few times a year. You know some of them only meet me once a year on Christmas Eve and then after that, they say goodbye to me for another year [laughs]. So I pull all of my energy and whatever I have to feed the children.
DK: Do you have any other gatherings throughout the week? In the evenings for adults or at other times.
CN: Sometimes on Sunday, and I go to visit them whenever they are available. They are very busy with new life here.
DK: What has it been like to be a pastor in the year 2020 during COVID-19, during the pandemic? How has that changed how you pastor?
CN: Since December of last year until now, I have been playing a role that I used to play as a pastor preaching every week. There has been no week that we have closed the church, but we have the procedure where we need to keep social distancing, sitting far apart from one another and hygiene, things like that. But I keep preaching [laughing] and that is my love. Especially to the old people, you know, for many of them the happiness of their life is to come to church. So when things happen like this, they come to church with their faith close. Observing them not being able to shake hands and hold one another as they used to -- that is very sad to me. That even their grandchildren cannot be able to come close [laughs], to kiss them. It has been a difficult thing to see.
DK: I want to transition to a new topic, the Vietnamese community at large. What social and economic issues are most significant to the larger scale Vietnamese community? What city or state programs have been most impactful to address these issues? Is the community changing, or how has it changed?
CN: The Vietnamese community, the older and the younger, we are all very successful in this country because we use to live in a very hostile, hard environment back in Vietnam. Economically, most of us are rich people. We work hard -- sometimes too hard -- that we do not come to church [laughs]. Yes, educationally we are successful also. Many become doctors or scientists -- very successful. But my only concern is spirituality. And family time. Those are the only things I am concerned about for them. For them especially their children yeah. They could have everything they wished to have when they were in Vietnam. New life, freedom, materialism, yes they are able to accomplish all of that, but the only thing is spiritual, mental wellness. That is the only thing and I am here for them.
DK: Clearly with your church services geared to the young ones you are very much living what you speak. What local public or political issues do you think are most important to the Vietnamese community?
CN: We care for the older of the society because without that there would not be any future. We used to live in a very chaotic place where the police could come to your door and come into your home at any time, any room they wanted to. They could take anything from you. They could prosecute you for anything. So we came to this country believing that we would have a better environment. Order and justice. That is what we enjoy seeing in this country. But today, the old and the young people of the Vietnamese community observe and see things change a lot... with what has been going on in downtown Portland? Yes.
DK: Can you add any more about what has been going on downtown and what you are referring to?
CN: Well it seems like the young people try to look for something, but they are not sure how to. They dream of many things, but somehow they think that somebody has to do that for them. In my generation, whatever dream we have in our head and in our heart, we need to implement it, and express it through our hands, which means we have to hang on to make it happen. But this generation does not seem like that. They want somebody to provide it, to give it to them rather than to enhance life, to share to be there. I see more destructive behavior than constructive. You know, in this country where we have people from different backgrounds, if we do not allow one another to talk in a peaceful way, to come together to share as brothers and sisters, it will be a very dangerous place to live. Back in Vietnam, you know the Communist regime would not allow anyone to talk, to express. In this country, if we allow that to happen this country will soon be like Vietnam, my Vietnam [laughs].
DK: So you would like to see constructive opportunities, but also opportunities for people to speak and to even voice disagreement with each other.
CN: Yes, yes and I believe in freedom of speech. Yes, yes people can express themselves but in a constructive way.
DK: I understand. I am curious -- outside of your official pastoral capacity with your congregation -- if you participate with other community groups or organizations? Are there individuals in the Vietnamese community who you look to for leadership and guidance?
CN: Yes, I associate with other groups, community leaders, Vietnamese community leaders, and Vietnamese artists. So every year we have art shows where we gather many artists from places like Seattle, California, Huston, sometimes Vietnam, to come here to open an art show. To share with the American people our background, how we do art. Yes. And the place where we used to have the art show is our church.
DK: What is the name of that art show again?
CN It is an art show, you know we have many styles. It depends on the theme of the art show, and we have been doing this for five or six years now. Not this year, but in 2019 we had one.
DK: Do you ever get together with other Vietnamese pastors in the community?
CN: Here in Portland?
CN: Yes, I came to visit them.
DK: Do you meet or have other gatherings of Vietnamese pastors monthly or yearly?
CN: Yes, with my college, yes monthly. And I associate with the other denominations also, like Catholic, Protestant. We go out to eat, to talk, to share.
DK: What are those meetings like?
CN: We spend time with a meal at some restaurant. We share our ministry, we share our dreams, how we could help this community, and how we could do more missions to the Vietnamese people back in Vietnam.
DK: Is there anything we have not asked you that you would like to discuss? Or do you have any other additional experiences that you would like to be preserved in the oral history we are recording today?
CN: Well once again I would like to express my gratitude to the American people. We have been treated fairly well and welcomed. It is my honor and privilege to come to this country and be a part of the American family. Maybe your parents or grandparents had welcomed us, the previous generation. It is my honor to meet you and to share with you what your parents and grandparents have done for us. Thirty years ago, a long time ago, can you believe that? It has been half a century already. Yes, and I will never forget what they did for us, beautifully.
DK: Thank you so much for meeting with me today. Again my name is Dustin Kelley and I am interviewing Pastor Cuong Ngo, pastor of the Vietnamese Adventist Church, and this concludes our recording. Thank you so much for listening.