Stephen Nghiem: Alright.
Dustin Kelley: Okay, we are recording.
DK: This is Dustin Kelley. It is August 10, 2020. I am in Watzek Library. I am chatting with Stephen Nghiem via Zoom. Stephen, thank you for being with me.
SN: Thank you very much. This is Stephen Nghiem, from Portland, Oregon.
DK: So glad you can be with us.
SN: Thank you.
DK: So you first recorded an interview with us one year ago.
DK: Are there any topics you are hoping to discuss with us today?
SN: Not really. I think that the time that I was with the group of two people, last time, we covered pretty much everything. We recorded I think over an hour, if I remember correctly.
DK: You have a very robust interview with quite a lot of your journey, and we really appreciate that.
SN: You are very welcome.
SN: So nothing much that I want to add into that interview, unless you have any more questions or anything you want to or know or anything that I need to clarify or anything like that.
DK: Well, we will touch on a couple of things, and also I want to begin by acknowledging that this has been a unique and challenging year here in the United States, but really around the world.
DK: It is reflected by the COVID-19 pandemic that we are experiencing, as well as the protests following the death of George Floyd.
SN: Right. Absolutely.
DK: Can you talk about your experience living in Camas, and then also working as a pastor in Portland so far in 2020?
SN: Yeah, it was kind of hard, because, well, we get back a little bit in February––we, like the Asian community, we celebrate the Asian New Year in February. We did not know that after that it was a disaster that we would not be able to meet since the last time we met, it was the second week of March. Since then, we could not be able to do anything until lately. But even right now, we came back, we started meeting at the church, but the limit is twenty-five people at a time. So we ended up with––most of the time we use Zoom for the service but on Saturday night we have a small group of us, about twenty to twenty-five people to get together at the church to try to have some feeling of having a service at the facility at the church.
It was really really challenging for me as a pastor because we normally meet at the church with about a hundred-fifty to hundred-sixty a week every Sunday. But since we switched to Zoom the highest number I could get is about seventy, which is about roughly one half of the church. The rest of them, either they are the older folks, they don't use Zoom or anything. They cannot do it or for some reason half of the church never joins us on Zoom even though I call them just to ask them how they are doing in the last few months. But that is the most I can do, is call them by phone and ask them something, that is all. Nothing much that I can do, unless there are a few people who actually invited me to come to their house for prayer and I will do so. But I only do it when they invite me, when they do not feel like a threat when a stranger comes to their house and things like that. So yeah, it has been... there are some pros and cons basically to be honest with you. The con is like I said, we got to meet on the Zoom and Zoom is not ideal for meeting because Christian people, when they get together, they sing. Zoom [was] never designed for the orchestra. Zoom [was] never designed to be singing together. For discussion, but not the singing. So we have that problem.
But however, for the pros, basically since I do not have to visit them more often, I have more time to read, more time to do meditation for myself, more time to prepare for sermons even though we have more sermons to prepare now. In the past, we had a Wednesday night meeting. But then we kind of rotate. I got some deacons who take turns to share so I do not have to do a whole lot. All Saturday night we have the kind of like a young couple group meeting and the same, we share. But now because of the Zoom, I will be mostly the one who speaks. So I will have to prepare three sermons a week now instead of one or two. It requires a lot more time, a lot more thought about what we are going to share. But anyway, we have more time. I have more time to read, to think, and to prepare. So in that, I believe that people told me that my sermon is deeper than before. It proves that I actually read a lot and think a lot about the sermon instead of running around visiting people all day long. But yeah, that is part of the pros. But the cons is I do not see people, you know, like face to face or anything like that.
DK: Well, I am glad you are able to find pros in addition to the cons.
SN: Oh yeah, quite a few. Not for me, but I always ask my church to use this time––but for the older folks they do not go out anyway, they got to stay at home. So they have to use their time to read the Bible, to do some self-study, to reflect on their lives, to do whatever they can now to fill up their time. So yeah, there are quite a few things that is a pros thing. Not just a con.
DK: I have a follow-up question. You mentioned that the current limit is gatherings of twenty-five.
SN: Yeah. Right.
DK: Has that number changed at all? As an administrator, as a leader of a community, has that been challenging to kind of follow the state numbers for gatherings?
SN: No. Some other church, they might have a problem with that but for my church, it is a little bit different because we have lots of––well, the background is one of the oldest Vietnamese church in the area, which is about forty-seven years old. So we have lots of three-generation, four-generation, coming to church. Which is we have quite a few older folks over sixty, over seventy, over eighty, or even nineties. So with those people, I ask them to stay home. Not to come into Saturday night because of their age. Even our church's capacity, we have twenty-one rows, long rows of bench and for twenty-five people, it seems like one person could have the whole row. Which is, we do not have the problem of distance. But I always ask them, unless we have more people or unless the restrictions is somehow less, then I will not want to have the older folks to come to our church right now because of their health.
So with the younger generation, the people with young kids are not coming either for now. So all of them can join Zoom but not actually go to church. So the twenty-five people is reasonable for us right now. I wish we could have more. Like fifty is fine. But as for me, fifty people––if we are allowed to have, I would start Sunday morning church with fifty people. If we got more than fifty, sixty to hundred, I would have two services. And that is my thinking, when we have more. Right now with twenty-five, I cannot have three or four services, but for fifty, I could be able to have one or two services per Sunday. For me, that is not a problem.
DK: That makes sense to me. Sounds like you have put a lot of thought into this.
SN: Oh, yeah.
DK: So my question was a long one, and you answered the first half of it about how COVID-19 has affected you and your work in 2020. Could you touch on how the protests here in the city following the death of George Floyd has impacted your life, both as a resident of Camas but also as a pastor within the city of Portland?
SN: Not much as a resident of Camas, because Camas is kind of a small town, a tiny town. You know, north of Portland, just separated by the bridge between Portland and the other side. But for the Camas community, I do not see a whole lot of difference. But for my church, we got affected because a few people in my church, they have some store or shop in downtown Portland. And during the protest, there is some looting, some really destroying the area. It affects a lot, to a few people in my church. And now even [though] they can open the store, they said that they have very little, a lot less customers now. And also they have to close at five at the latest, they cannot open past five o'clock. Because at the time of five, even now they start to get together right downtown doing some demonstrations, things like that. So for me, it does not affect a whole lot in my life, but for my church, yeah, a few people got affected.
DK: Were they affected specifically by looting?
SN: Not by looting, but because they cannot [stay] open late and people are coming less, even the people who have been coming to their store very faithfully, now they do not do it anymore because it is right downtown. My daughter, she had a studio while––she is attending OHSU right now for dental school. So she rents a studio close by near the dental school. She basically said that just school and home, she does not go anywhere close to downtown at all because of all the problems they might get. And even me, when I stop by to see her to bring her stuff, I try to avoid [going] in the evening because you don't know where they will go. One time I got stuck on highway eighty-four for about an hour because they used that eighty-four as the place for demonstration, so all of the traffic stopped. I heard a lot of screaming and yelling and things like that. But directly in my life, I do not have anything that has been affected by that. But indirectly, yes, there are some.
DK: Do you have any thoughts you want to add in regard to social justice or the meaning behind the protests?
SN: Yeah. I could understand that, and I am always the one who always agrees with the Black Lives Matter. Because just like I said, it was the last straw. For me, that George Floyd happened is just the last straw for the Black community. What happened happened, and we could not be able to get back to the way it was. But at least for now, with all the demonstrations and all the protests, I think that is not the ideal, that is not the thing we want to happen. But it has got to happen because I think the Black have been oppressed for so long, and now is the time to do something since Martin Luther King Jr, up to now. I still see a lot of problems that they have to face with. But being a pastor, I always hope that or wish that there is some way more peaceful than just let somebody who has got so excited or so bad people to get in and start looting and destroying things. I disagree with that, but I agree with the movement.
DK: Well, thank you for sharing your thoughts on that. So, changing gears a little bit.
DK: You mentioned that you are the pastor of Vietnamese Christian community church.
DK: Which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God.
SN: Yes, that is correct.
DK: You have already answered some of this as far as group restrictions and physical distancing at the beginning. At the beginning, was it challenging as far as getting appropriate masks and PPE? Was it tricky getting your membership on board with these developing changes?
SN: It could be under some different circumstances, but now in this situation, I do not think I have a whole lot because that is all really the people can do now, is to use online for the meeting for the service and nothing else much that they could be able to do so. But then I should say that when it happened from the third week of March, we thought that we could be able to get back to do Mother's Day or Father's Day, but then it has been several months that went by and we do not even know when we can get back. We do not even know what would we do this Thanksgiving and Christmas as well. So it is hard because the whole year without people coming to church and people coming to the house of worship. It is a lot harder for the older folks. For me, the problem is a lot of older people like grandpa and grandma or great grandpa and great grandma, they are looking forward to going to church every Sunday so they could see their children and their grandkids. But now in the last five or six months, they cannot be able to do so and the visit from the grandkids is very limited now as well. So I know a lot of things that affect them mentally and physically. But [there is] nothing much that we could do right now, and I keep telling them that we have got to have hope, and I will do whatever I could to just ease their mind, to make them feel comfortable, more better. Now, so I promised them that whenever the restrictions move up a little bit then I will try to open up the church while upholding the safety first for the older folks. But we need some way somehow to get them to get back to church, even slowly, let them know that we still care about them, and we try to get them to see the family together to come to church every week. So––
DK: In your previous––Oh, go ahead.
SN: No, no. You are good, just ask me a question [laughs].
DK: In your previous interview, you mentioned preaching at other Baptist and other denominational churches from time to time. Is that something you are still able to do remotely with COVID-19?
SN: No, actually not. Well, one of the reasons is [that] last year, some churches who need the pastors, and they could not be able to fill in some of the positions, and so they don't need me to come to their church anymore. But during COVID, we do not even have a pastor meeting anymore.
DK: So a pastor meeting, is that something taking place between you and other Vietnamese churches?
SN: Yeah, Vietnamese pastors in the area. We normally meet once a month just to support each other, but then the last time we met, it was the first week of March. Then right after that, something happened in the second week of March up to now. We got to stop doing it.
DK: How many of you are in this group?
SN: Oh, it is varied because we meet on a monthly basis, once a month, so whenever they have a chance they will come. It could be like ten or twelve people but it could be three or four. So it is vary a lot. We have a few, like three or four, kind of a core group that we meet very faithfully. But the other people, whenever they have time. We meet on Monday morning which is the day off for most of the pastors. But keep in mind that quite a few Vietnamese pastors are, just like other pastors in the area, or in the country, which is they are pastoring a smaller church which requires them to work outside the church for some secular job. So they still have to work on Monday through Friday. Then they pastor the church during the weekend, so those people, they cannot be able to join us.
DK: What are some of the denominations represented?
SN: We have got some general Baptist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, those are the ones that will normally come to the group. And I am the only Pentecostal pastor there.
DK: Sounds like a nice community of support that you are able to provide for them.
SN: Yes and no. The no is a funny thing. You know, the Evangelical people or mainstream or anything like that, majority of them are kind of like Republican. And I am the only Democrat in the group. It is not a big deal about that, we are pastors anyway. But sometimes when they talk about something, because I am there they would not say anything bad about Democrats. But I know behind my back they talk really bad about Democrats [laughs]. I do not really care about that.
DK: Fair enough. There is certainly an ideological divide.
SN: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean up to this point I do not know what happened but this year particularly, I see a lot of problems, even in the family. The older the generation is different. If you know more about the Vietnamese community, then you will see the conflict between––what should I say? It could be like a Democrat versus Republican or anything like that, but for the Vietnamese, older Vietnamese folk, they still have a lot of thoughts about during the Vietnam War. They have a lot of bitterness related to the South Vietnamese collapse because the American policy at the time voted to give up the South Vietnam. So they are still living in the past, versus the younger generation. They do not care much, they never grew up during the war. They have got no clue what the war is about besides what the stories that were told by the older folks, or they read some books or history. They are a lot more open, they do not care much about what happened in the past. They look for the future more, when the older folks try to hold up the past. So there is some conflict there.
Another conflict is the Vietnamese people here in the US or around the world, to be honest, ninety-nine-point-nine percent hate Communists. That is the reason they left the country, because of the communism in the country. So they have got a high hope that one day that the American government, particularly Donald Trump, could be able to hit the Communists hard. The Communists in Vietnam will be collapsed, and they could be able to get back to the country for the last time in their lives. They are like seventies, eighties now. Some of them are in their nineties. So that is their hope. But the younger generation, they do not really care much about them. They say, "Yeah communism is bad, but it is going to change." But they do not think that Trump will be the savior for that, or there has got to be a whole policy, the whole country policy, it does not depend on one person. So there is some discussion, some arguments, within the families in that sense. Being a pastor, I try not to be biased. I try to be in the middle, to tell people what is right and what is wrong. But sometimes it is hard, because older folks, they do not want to give up their dream, their [dream of] coming back home. Just like the Jewish people start doing it after World War II. And that’s their dream. They will not stop dreaming about that.
DK: Thank you for explaining that. I have seen aspects of these discussions in some various online formats.
DK: I think your explanation will be very useful to our listeners. So I appreciate that explanation.
SN: You are very welcome. Well, the thing is I can’t blame the older folks, because whatever they tried, they cannot adjust their lives accordingly to the life in the US. Number one is because of the language barrier. No matter how [hard they try], they cannot have the same language as the younger generation. The younger generation, a lot of them don't speak Vietnamese. The main language, their native language, their mother tongue, is English, not Vietnamese. So most of the time when they discuss or when they argue together, the thing is the miscommunication. They do not understand each other a lot of the time. You know, the Asian custom is in––everywhere in Asia like Vietnam or Thailand or Japan or anywhere else in Vietnam, there is always some kind of when you are younger, you have got to respect the older generation. Like, do not argue with them. That is in Asia but now in the US, the younger generation, they have the freedom to argue with their parents and with their grandparents [laughs]. So that’s––
DK: I am guessing their grandparents do not see it that way.
SN: No, no, no. It is like a lack of respect [laughs]. But anyways, that is some kind of culture shock for them. Even the older generation, some of them, like they have been here for a long time, they still cannot adjust their lives. They are better than somebody who just came here but still, it is not the same as the younger generation when they were a kid or they were born here. My two kids were born here, and my older daughter, she cannot write Vietnamese or read. But she could be able to understand Vietnamese a lot. With my son, I got to communicate with him in English. Every time I speak something in Vietnamese he says, "What? What?" [laughs]. So the generation gap is really, really bad.
DK: Sounds like it puts you in a natural place to be a pastor, as someone who can communicate with both audiences, and work with those who are a generation older than you are, but also with the younger generations as well.
SN: Yeah, well, I am so fortunate. I mean, I thank God for putting me in this position because I grew up in Vietnam––which is, I grew up during the war. So I understand quite a bit. And then the good thing is I came here forty-something years ago with some education that I could be able to be a bilingual person and I could be able to understand the older generation and also I have young kids, young children. So I know how young people will think in their mind. Also what we call the younger generation, it could be mid-thirties now or forties––which is they have a career, they have a young family. They are looking for some church to help them with the young kids. So I could be able to communicate with any generation of the church, from the very young to the very old group. So I could be able to help quite a bit. Looking back and looking around the other pastors, [there are] a lot of people who cannot do that. Because for the younger pastors, their Vietnamese is not really good enough to communicate. They do not have the knowledge to communicate with the older folks. For the older pastors, because of the language limit, they cannot communicate with the younger generation. So there is some limits within the pastors, I will say the ethnic pastors. It is not just Vietnamese, I could see the same for the Filipino group, for the Ukrainian group, or Chinese, or any other minority group here in the US.
DK: So you previously mentioned volunteering for Mission Vietnam, an organization that works with American Veterans of the Vietnam War.
SN: Yes, I am still. Yeah.
DK: You still are. So I am hoping you can talk about what it’s like to volunteer right now. I am also curious about any other organizations you may have partnered with over your time as a resident of the greater Portland area.
SN: Okay. First of all, for Mission Vietnam, last time I talked about it, we go back to Vietnam once a year to take some note of the vets to come to visit a place that they had fought before in Vietnam. And also, we have some kind of charity work for the blind people, and for the orphanage, and stuff like that. But this year we planned to do it in March, April time frame but we could not be able to do so. However, we have a couple of American pastors that spent four months in Vietnam during the COVID and they just got back to the states. But then even though we can not go there now, we still have a meeting because I am in an executive group. So we still have to have a meeting often to do some budget, or to do things that we would do when the COVID is out and we could be able to get back to do more there. You know, Vietnam is a communist country so we cannot be able to evangelize. We are not allowed to talk about Jesus Christ or anything like that, but we could do a lot of other things indirectly to do so. So yeah, right now is the time, I think that time that the Lord just prepares us to stay home for a year, and then to start planning for the future. In the past, I also volunteered to work on some group. I do not know if you have ever heard about the Citizen Review Board, which is CRB. That group is working with the foster families to check out the security for the children who are placed into the foster home, especially some little kids [who] are in an ethnic group. So I volunteered to work with them, I was on the board to review some cases on a monthly basis. I helped them, I do not remember exactly how long, about two years. Yeah, about two years.
DK: What did that work at all entail?
SN: CRB is the organization that is not just in Portland, but in any big city. They have people who volunteer to sit on the board. Then each month we sit down, four or five of us, to sit with the parents, with the foster parents, sometimes with the kids and with the social workers. We review to see if the kids are placed into the correct and right family. How is the kid doing in school? Things like that. So this is voluntary work with some time to review each case. We cannot do a lot because we are just a group of people to look into the file and to meet to have some kind of interview in a short time. But we can make some recommendations to the judge, to the court, to find the best for the children who were placed into the foster family. Right now I know that the CRB is still having right now, I searched the internet and it is almost like everywhere in the big city in the United States, they have that organization. The reason that I stopped doing it [is] because of the workload. There was a time that I worked a secular job outside of the church and also I worked during the weekend for the church. So I could not be able to do more than that. So after two years I got to resign from my position at CRB to focus more on the church until fourteen or fifteen years ago and I totally quit the job, the secular job, to be a full-time pastor. But I never had the chance to get back to that program.
DK: I am curious, since you have been a resident of Portland for several decades now, what organizations do you think are some of the most centrally important to the Vietnamese community, both past and present?
SN: When I first came here, as I mentioned in the first interview, I mentioned the plan or the program they call CETA, C-E-T-A. I do not remember what the abbreviation is for. But anyways, that helps for the low-income people to go back to school for some associate degree at PCC and Clackamas Community College, in the Multnomah and Clackamas area, I believe. But that is the time when I came, it was just in Multnomah County to help people with low income. I was one of the members of that. I registered for that program and I was going to PCC at the time. I do not believe that, after four or five years-- because of the money or something-- that program no longer exists. And then for the Vietnamese people later on it has been a while, I think maybe twenty years, that there is a group, one more called IRCO, I-R-C-O. There is a Vietnamese Division to help Vietnamese people to look for a job, to get some training. They also have some programs to help for the older folks, for the people who don't speak English, things like that.
I think those organizations really, really help a lot. I know that there is one group of people that serve the older folks. So the Vietnamese older people once or twice a month, they could come to one place and they could come to one place and they could have lunch together so they could meet and associate with each other. Because a lot of them, they do not belong to any-- if they are not Christian-- they do not belong to any church. If they are Buddhist then they might go to some pagoda or some Buddhist temple but they do not have any kind of activities just like any other group. For this group to serve senior citizens, that helps a lot, helps everyone, regardless of their background or anything like that. So I heard right now in the COVID time, not in Multnomah, they got to stop that for a while. Then in Washington County, the other side of the river, they still meet, I do not know, once a week or twice a month, whatever it is now, that they still serve older folks. They come to have lunch together and they still have social distance, but the group is still surviving right now. So the older folks during this COVID time, they could be able to find a place that they could be able to see their friends or they could be able to meet with somebody. If they still live with the family but if they live in the––I do not know how it works for the people who live in the nursing home, because nursing homes right now are kind of isolated. They do not want anybody to come in or out or anything. But I know that the group, they got seniors, Vietnamese senior citizens, are still active in the Washington County. Not in Multnomah County.
DK: Well, that concludes my list of questions. But I wanted to give you a chance to, if there is anything else that we touched on that you would like to add on too, or if you have any other topics you would like to talk about.
SN: Not really––the only thing I would add, this is not just to my church but for any other, either the Christian church or the Vietnamese organization, that we do not know what is going to be in the next five to ten years. Because the older generation, the Vietnamese generation, they are getting older and they will, some day most of them or all of them will pass away. And the Vietnamese-speaking group or church would have no reason to keep going. They got some way somehow to switch to English speaking churches to serve the younger generation. But like I said earlier, the [younger] generation, they do not care much about race or they do not care much about the language, as long as they speak English. So they can be able to go to any American church, to join any American church, to have activities with any American youth group. My kids they, when they were in high school, they already go to the American church. And in college, they go to the American church. So for the Vietnamese churches, I do not know. Well, I am now getting older and the dilemma for the board right now is to look for somebody who will replace me. But is it somebody who is like me, or who is somebody like English-speaking only? Because I said, it is not so far away, it is five to ten years, everything will change, you know.
DK: So lots of identity issues.
SN: Yes, I know the Chinese people and they have been here forever and they still have a Chinese-speaking church. But for the Vietnamese group, we do not have the whole history like the Chinese group––or I know that there is some other group the old language is dying out. Or at least at some church we have got to have a bilingual group or for the church. For me, the problem I have now is I have all the kids, when they are younger up to high school. But when they are in college, they are gone. Either they go to college far away from home, or they are busy, they got to work. Then when they graduate they got to find a job. Sometimes the job is not in Portland or anywhere else near home. So that is a generation I keep losing, is the younger generation. I could be able to hire somebody to help with the grade school and junior high and high school. But we do not have––we have a gap right there. The college [students] who stayed home is very very little, very few, and I still have that group, but just a few people. Also I ask this group to help the younger group. So we have a younger generation under eighteen, and we have an older generation, like the thirties. The twenties, the late teens, or the twenty-something-year-old are just gone. We do not have a whole lot. Our church is the largest church in the Portland area and we have that problem. So the other churches I believe have the same problem.
DK: That makes sense. That was an important addition.
DK: Well this concludes our interview. Again, this is Dustin Kelley speaking with Stephen Nghiem via Zoom on August 10, 2020. Thank you so much for being with me.
SN: You are very welcome.
DK: Let me go ahead and stop our recording now.