Victoria Baptist Church entered a period of steep decline as the 1980s melded into the '90s. But the congregation's commitment to reaching people remained steadfast.
Especially the Vietnamese who were arriving in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
"Victoria was in an area of population change," Joe Hilbun recounted, "and had been declining for fifty years — nearly its entire existence, really, since it was started in 1947 — but even as it declined, the members continued to reach out where they saw needs."
Hilbun was Victoria's pastor for fifteen years during which the Vietnamese work was begun. He later returned to the church for the nine months before its closure. Hilbun now is serving Victoria's successor — Vietnamese Hope Baptist Church — on an interim basis until a new Vietnamese pastor is called.
When the United States left South Vietnam in 1975 and communists invaded from the north, many Vietnamese languished in POW camps or fled the war-torn nation. They waited in refugee camps for months or years for entry to the United States and the freedom they longed for. The U.S. government, in turn, parceled the refugees out across the nation.
It was these people that Victoria's congregation sought to help — Vietnamese with little more than the clothes they were wearing who arrived in Baton Rouge, numbed by memories of the tragedy they had left behind and the emotional turmoil from life in a refugee camp.
Within five years, Victoria Baptist's English as a Second Language (ESL) class led to a monthly month worship service in Vietnamese with a pastor from New Orleans. Two years later, in 1987, Nguyen Xuan Hao became the first pastor of what the congregation named Vietnamese Hope Baptist Mission.
From Vietnamese Hope's first Sunday, they've been giving 10 percent of their offerings through the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists' channel of combining the efforts and resources of local churches to make a difference in the lives of people around the world and across the nation.
Vietnamese Hope learned to give to missions through the Cooperative Program from Victoria Baptist.
"Our leadership on down understands well about the Cooperative Program; that's why we have supported it so many years," said associate pastor Vinh Nguyen, a chemical engineer. Nguyen was ordained and named senior pastor in 1998 and served bivocationally in the role until November 2008 when he stepped down so the church could call a full-time pastor.
"The Cooperative Program means to work together for the Great Commission," Nguyen continued. "One person cannot do it by himself. That's scriptural. That's why Jesus built His church and not just one temple."
Vietnamese Hope reached out to arriving immigrants, helping each family start a new life in America. When the mission was young, Victoria Baptist assisted in the outreach, but as Vietnamese Hope grew, family by family, they became able to shoulder the burden while at the same time remembering family and friends in Vietnam. And through the Cooperative Program, they reached out to the world.
"The Cooperative Program is about working together, doing more together than any one church, no matter how big, could do on its own," Hilbun said. "The Cooperative Program is about thinking of others, not just yourself. It's in that outward focus that God is honored and we receive a blessing."
Today, Vietnamese Hope looks for opportunities to reach across the state by helping start churches when groups of Vietnamese are identified in a community such as east New Orleans, Abbeville, and Henderson. Vietnamese Hope ministers to youth by participating in and/or leading regional summer sports-and-spirituality camps and Thanksgiving camps. Globally, a Vietnamese Hope member is serving this summer with displaced Vietnamese in Asia. The church plans to send several people next summer on the same short-term missions assignment.
Victoria's legacy continues through Vietnamese Hope because it imparted the spirit of the Cooperative Program to the mission. When Victoria members saw the Vietnamese congregation squashed into the fellowship hall while Victoria's few remaining members were spread out in the worship center, the mother church switched places with the mission congregation.
About twenty-five members were left when, in February 2000 and under the direction of Hilbun, Victoria voted unanimously to give Vietnamese Hope all its assets: buildings, two-acre property, and the $32,000 in the bank.
"They have been tremendously good stewards of the property," Hilbun said. "They are very grateful for the property and spend lots of money not just maintaining it but improving it.
"They're very industrious," the pastor continued. "A significant number tithe regularly. The congregation is trying to save up for a gym because sports is very important to them."
Hilbun noted, "They came here with almost nothing and most all of them now are gainfully employed. They drive nice vehicles — Honda, Toyota, Lexus — they probably paid cash for. They save up their money and don't do much borrowing."
The Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge housed its food bank and clothing ministry programs at Vietnamese Hope for several years. Vietnamese volunteers worked there two days a week — taking food orders and packing boxes, while others from the association delivered what was needed by those who called in. The Vietnamese congregation also reached out to the local seamen's center, where Hilbun had served as director.
"We want to build on the groundwork we have laid and move aggressively forward in evangelism," Hilbun said. The church recently bought three hundred copies of Campus Crusade for Christ's JESUS film on DVD, which includes a dozen languages as viewing options as well as a children's version.
"I believe we're at a point where in the near future we need to become much more aggressive in reaching out to the Vietnamese population in Baton Rouge again," Hilbun said. "That's been done regularly over the years, and it's time. We're at a stable place and need to move forward."
The Cooperative Program, meanwhile, remains "the lifeline of our missionary endeavors throughout the Southern Baptist Convention," said Hilbun, who also has served as director of missions and ministries in the Baton Rouge area. Throughout the SBC, he said, "We need to take new steps to teach people the value of the Cooperative Program. We need aggressive training in what it is and how it operates and what it's doing."
Karen L. Willoughby is a member of Kingsville Baptist Church in Pineville, Louisiana, and is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message and the Dakota Baptist newspapers.