Thi Nguyen was attending a Vietnamese Mennonite church in Philadelphia when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. He wanted to help, and was invited to travel to Bayou La Batre as a service worker for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
Over the two years he served with MCC, he was a translator and an advisor for many Vietnamese people. “I got attached to this place,” he said, looking around the village known as the “Seafood Capital of Alabama.” Situated in the southwest corner of Alabama, Bayou La Batre is home to several thousand people, many of them involved in seafood processing, shrimping, oyster shucking and welding to repair boats.
During and after Nguyen’s service with MCC ended, he began volunteering with MDS once a week, helping to repair homes. He also served as a case manager for Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), a partner along with MDS in the Mobile County long-term recovery committee.
“Vietnamese people would come into the office and sometimes I would go to their homes,” he said. “Often, I connected with people by just translating a letter for them.”
Ten years later, Nguyen is still ministering to the Vietnamese community in Bayou La Batre. He now works through the Way of Life Community Church, a Mennonite congregation in town.
Over time, building on his connections started through MCC, MDS and LDR, Nguyen has forged a trusting relationship with the Vietnamese community. As he mentors many people, he relies on his own mentor — J.D. Landis, pastor at Way of Life and MDS Alabama Unit chair.
Nguyen got married two years ago and bought some land in Bayou La Batre. HIs wife is in nursing school while he continues his ministry. “Here, the Vietnamese are very hardworking people,” he said. “Sometimes they are vulnerable because of the language barrier and the different culture. Sometimes they are misrepresented. They really don’t have a voice. I’m very passionate at this point about working in the bayou.”
More and more Vietnamese people have been attending church, he added. “I really want to see God’s people grow here.”
In the wake of Katrina, as MDS worked in Bayou La Batre to repair homes, Landis was also determined to reach out to the Vietnamese community in other ways. “For many Vietnamese people, when they found the bayou, they found home,” he said.
The first Christmas after Katrina, Landis put the word out that the long-term recovery groups would host food and a movie in a local shopping center parking lot. “We had more than 100 folks come out,” he said, “and local Vietnamese translators helped us communicate.”
MDS has gained trust not only with the Vietnamese population but in the wider Bayou La Batre community because MDS has had a presence through multiple hurricanes, from the time the storms struck until people got back into their homes, said Mike Dillaber, who served as an MDS project coordinator for the Gulf Coast.
Before Katrina hit, Dillaber was trying to find volunteers to repair homes damaged by Hurricane Ivan, which hit the area in 2004. People were so eager to help after Katrina that he was able to finish the Ivan-related repairs and Katrina-related repairs alike.
Dillaber also served as president of the Alabama Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), a coalition of faith-based and nonprofit organizations that respond to disasters.
As Dillaber looks back on the work of the Alabama VOAD partners, he estimates they took on thousands of repair jobs in the wake of hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and Isaac, which made landfall in 2012.
“MDS by far completed the most volunteer jobs,” he said. “Looking back, by 2009, I believe we were running one of the largest construction companies in the southeast.”