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.
"It was a huge privilege to go on a mission and speak Vietnamese," he said.
Nguyen was delighted by the government's recognition of the LDS committee.
"I was really excited today," he said. "I didn't think it would happen any time soon."
Elder Todd Tran's father also embraced the news from his native country.
"I think it's great the government is giving the church an opportunity to be in Vietnam and to serve and share the gospel with the people," Thao Tran said. "The church has a long record of humanitarian service in Vietnam, and I think the government appreciates that, and that the church follows the law."
Thao Tran said annual visits by Vietnamese government officials to the international law and religion symposium at BYU have provided those officials with firsthand opportunities to learn about the church in Utah.28 comments on this story
The president of the church's Hanoi district, Hoang Van Tung, will chair the government-approved Interim Representative Committee. He will be joined by the two LDS branch presidents in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tung said the church is committed to following Vietnam's religious activity laws, according to the release.
He also said future announcements about what the recognition will mean for church members in Vietnam won't be made until additional details are finalized.
Pham Dung, chairman of the Vietnam government's Committee for Religious Affairs, presented the certification in a ceremony at the Hanoi LDS branch. He was joined by religious affairs committee members and other government officials.