Fruitland Baptist Bible College is launching a bold new Bible teaching program for the Montagnard people who have settled in North Carolina from Vietnam.
First classes will begin in mid-August. The new initiative comes in response to a request from North Carolina Baptists that such a program of theological education be started for the Montagnards.
Approved by messengers at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s (BSC) annual meeting in 2017, the assignment went to Fruitland. The school, whose main campus is at Hendersonville, is owned and operated by the convention and supported by convention churches through their Cooperative Program giving.
Fruitland will offer an associate degree, more advanced than a certificate, to students who complete the prescribed 125 quarter hours. Teaching will be done in Vietnamese or one of five Montagnard languages spoken in North Carolina.
“Fruitland will be the first college in the United States offering a Christian ministry degree to the Montagnard people that will be taught in their own languages,” said Fruitland President David Horton. “We’re very excited about it because we knew there was a need for this kind of theological education. Of course with any new program like this, there are some unknowns as well.”
The name “Montagnard,” which means essentially mountain dweller, is a French word from the time France played a role in Vietnam. The term is an umbrella label for a score of different tribal people groups, each with their own language, culture and customs. They lived traditionally in the highlands of southern Vietnam. They have long sought to be an independent country; most fought with Americans in the Vietnam War.
Published reports put the number of Montagnards in North Carolina at more than 5,000, the highest number living outside Vietnam. The five principal Montagnard groups in the state are: Jarai, Rhade, Bahnar, Koho and Bunong. Montagnards are known for their brightly patterned clothing.
The new curriculum is a good fit for Fruitland, said Scott Thompson, vice president for academic affairs. Like all the school’s courses of study, the Montagnard program will have Bible studies as its foundation, with communication and pastoral ministries added.
“Those three make up the core of how we design curriculum at Fruitland,” Thompson said.
To manage the language aspects of the teaching, Fruitland has created a partnership with a unique Montagnard father-and-son team: K’Them and his son, Simon Touprong. The two men settled in North Carolina in 2003. They set about preaching and organizing churches, but eventually focused on training church leaders for ministry.
“My father has handled most of the teaching, though I have helped at times,” Touprong said. “He is uniquely qualified to teach both in Vietnamese and some of the Montagnard languages. I cannot do what he can do with the languages. I have helped mostly with the administration end of things and given support.”
For years the two men have led classes in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte – cities where the greatest clusters of Montagnard people live. The schedule has required frequent travel in order to prepare church leaders to lead.
Earlier they partnered with a non-denominational college that offered a certificate, but not an associate degree like Fruitland, which will be valued and respected by churches across the Carolinas and surrounding states.
“Now, praise the Lord, the convention is sort of adopting us,” Touprong said.
For the Fruitland connection, Touprong credited Sammy Joo, who directs Asian ministry for the convention, and Brian Davis, associate director-treasurer for administration and convention relations. Touprong said Milton A. Holifield Jr., BSC executive director-treasurer, “has offered lots of spiritual support for us.”
Thompson said the teaching done by the two Montagnard men will be brought under Fruitland’s curriculum.
“We could not do this ministry without these two men,” Thompson said. “They are two men of God and they have a passion to help their people.”
Prayer was an important part of all the many meetings and discussions which have been invested in setting up the new program, Horton said. Classes will continue to be held at Rankin Baptist Church in Greensboro, Longview Baptist Church in Raleigh, and Eastway Baptist Church in Charlotte. These churches also provide meeting space for Montagnard congregations. Southside Baptist Church in Greensboro hosts quarterly gatherings of Montagnard students.
Future plans call for moving at least some of the teaching onto the internet, perhaps with classes carried live to allow for handling languages and allowing for questions. Touprong dreams that one day they will be able to have a training center in Greensboro that could accommodate classes with internet broadcasting capabilities.
Meanwhile, Horton said Fruitland is seeking greater financial support for the Montagnard program.
“A Christian donor could help have a huge impact, both here in our state and far beyond,” Horton said.