Pastor Tom Tran

Pastor Tom Tran celebrates a month of fellowship as pastor of Banning United Methodist Church.

Pastor Tom Tran’s family were technically enemies of the state, while he was growing up in South Vietnam.

His father was a colonel for the South Vietnamese Army, and when Saigon fell, he was sent off to a concentration camp.

Tom, his mother, and his siblings were forced from their home and struggled to make ends meet.

He fled to the United States when he was 22.

Now 57, Tran, a resident at Four Seasons in Beaumont, is finishing up his first month as pastor of United Methodist Church in Banning, replacing Pastor Brenda Torrie who was called to a church in Wyoming.

He started his position there July 1, having previously served a United Methodist church in Anaheim.

Tran was imprisoned three times under hard labor conditions after trying to flee his country.

“After the Communists took over, my father was taken to a concentration camp, and we were able to live in our home for two years before they confiscated all of our property,” Tran says. “We weren’t allowed to go to college, or get a job after everything was nationalized. Since our family cooperated with Americans, we were treated as second-class citizens, paid higher taxes, and were discriminated against for being Christian,” and were forbidden to attend church services.

The local police precinct kept close watch on his family in order to take advantage of opportunities to harass them, according to Tran.

In 1982 his younger brother managed to flee the country, and three months later — on his eighth such attempt — Tran squeezed onto a 30 foot-long boat that was 10 feet wide and crammed with nearly 50 other refugees, and after a five days and nights landed in Thailand.

Two other siblings managed to flee two years apart.

By 1983 Tran had settled in Long Beach and worked sanding furniture for a factory.

He received U.S. citizenship in 1990.

In the 1990s the United States and Vietnam struck an agreement to allow political prisoners to leave Vietnam and come to the U.S.; the rest of Tran’s family, including his father who had been imprisoned for more than 15 years, would be able to join him in America.

According to Tran, his father had been moved to various hard-labor camps, where prisoners sometimes were forced to help build those camps without enough to eat.

“I’m glad he got out alive,” Tran says. “Most of his friends were buried” in those camps, and their families never received word of their fates. “It was a slow death sentence to former officers.”

Tran was 12 and attending Sunday school in Vietnam during the war when he chose to accept Jesus Christ as his savior.

As a former refugee, Tran felt called to ministry.

“Coming from a Communist country with no human rights and oppression, as part of a helpless family in the margins of society, I am living a second life,” Tran says. “This country has given me the opportunity to go to school, work hard and become a pastor.”

Tran is divorced with a 24 year-old son. He was ordained in the United Methodist Church, California Pacific Conference, in 1994, after attending Hope University at Pacific Christian College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in biblical studies; he received a Master of Divinity from the Claremont School of Theology.

Tran shows no ill will toward his birth country.

He has gone back to visit a few times, most recently earlier this year.

“Those born after 1975 in Vietnam see American influence everywhere: American products, Jack In The Box — American soft power dominates life,” and everyone is welcoming of the economic influence Americans and former Vietnamese compatriots bring with them, as long as “they keep their mouth shut” about political issues or criticism of the government, according to Tran.

He is excited to join Banning United Methodist Church.

“This isn’t a one-man show here. I got a big welcome from them,” his fellow congregants; and “I will show them I love them and I love God. We will work together to grow this congregation as a family-style place of worship.”

Staff Writer David James Heiss may be reached at dheiss@recordgazette.net , or by calling (951) 849-4586 x114.

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