Vietnam gives local LDS leaders official recognition, legal status
WEST JORDAN — Todd Tran's family knew he couldn't be called to serve a mission in Vietnam, where his father was born, because the LDS Church doesn't have a mission there.
But when Tran opened his mission call at his home in West Jordan in February, he found the next best thing — a Vietnamese-speaking assignment to Cambodia, which has three Vietnamese branches in the capital city of Phnom Penh.
Better yet, and what Tran's family didn't learn until Friday, was that missionaries with a Vietnamese parent who serve in the Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission are eligible to enter Vietnam as "branch builders."
That means Tran, who arrived in Phnom Penh three weeks ago, has a chance to return to his father's homeland during his mission. That chance appears to be growing now because the Vietnamese government has invited The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to add members.
On Friday, Vietnam government leaders officially recognized a committee of Vietnamese LDS Church leaders, giving them legal status to represent the church in the country.
The appointment of the committee allows for continuing dialogue about the possibility of full-time-missionary work in Vietnam as well as other subjects, according to a press release posted on the church's newsroom website.
"This is a significant step for the LDS Church in Vietnam," the church's release says. "It provides for a body that is officially recognized by the government of Vietnam to act for the church on a nationwide basis."
Vietnamese Latter-day Saints cheered the announcement. One of them is The Van Nguyen ("Tay Van Win"), who was the branch president of the LDS congregation in Saigon when it fell in April 1975 and who has been involved in helping translate the church's applications for official status since the communist takeover in Vietnam.
"It means a lot to me because I'm one of the people who has been trying to help get government recognition," said Nguyen, who lives in Salt Lake City. "I'm really excited to hear this news."
More than 1,600 Latter-day Saints live in Vietnam. The church has three branches there, one in Hanoi and two in Ho Chi Minh City. A branch is an LDS congregation led by a branch president in an area where the church has fewer members. A district comprises several branches, led by a district president.
The Vietnamese government has invited the LDS Church "to have more members in more locations," the release says. For now, the church cannot have proselyting missionaries in Vietnam, but it can have “branch builders,” who strengthen members and build branches at registered locations.
For more than two years, those branch builders have included some missionaries of Vietnamese extraction who serve as part of the Cambodia mission.
In November 2011, Elder Joseph Nguyen, who is from the Bronx, New York, and his companion, Elder Cameron LeNguyen of Surprise, Arizona, became the first Vietnamese-American missionaries to enter Vietnam as branch builders.
They served in the branches in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City — formerly Saigon.
Nguyen, now 23 and a BYU business management student who teaches Vietnamese at the church's Missionary Training Center in Provo, said branch builders couldn't contact people in Vietnam but could talk to people who contacted them first and teach those who invited them to their homes.
Though Nguyen, who joined the LDS Church in 2010, is the only Mormon in his family, connecting with his roots during his missionary service had deep meaning.
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