On one tropical afternoon, many children assembled with their mothers in what- seemed- like over-a- mile long-line, waiting to receive a special package of basic necessities such as a hygiene kit, clothing, and small toys. The blazing heat of the sun was spiraling and penetrating from the warmth of the unpaved dirt path beneath their tough and callous, little, bare feet. The combination of standing and waiting in the middle of the sweltering heat inside the barbed-wired compound, on this highly anticipated event grew long and cumbersome. The burning heat caused a gradual trickling of sweat and tears down several homely, little tanned faces, framed with unruly black hair. One of them, could no longer bear it, turned to her mother standing next to her, quietly whispered, “My head hurts so bad, when it is going to be my turn?” Her mother replied, “It will be soon.” Somehow, despite the reality that soon was not even close, those simple words were both comforting and soothing to her ears, even if for a few split seconds. At last, after hours of tireless waiting, the tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed woman standing in the front of the line handed the brown paper wrapped package to this little girl. Holding the package in her hands brought both smiles and tears of relief and gratitude. However, her large, brown eyes were fixed not so much on what was in her hands, but on the large poster picture behind the tall woman. The curious girl quickly said, “Who is that?” Pointing to the picture with a bright smile, the woman answered in the little girl’s native language, “That is Jesus Christ!”
The little girl in this introduction was me. The spark of curiosity ignited on that monumental day made a persistent impression on my eight-year-old mind which continued over the next several years. Today, I have been asked to share my conversion story for which I am deeply honored and grateful for the opportunity to walk down memory lane these past few weeks. I can’t talk about my conversion without giving you some background into my personal history or a glimpse of my journey to freedom.
By the end of the Vietnam War era in 1975, many families, including mine, fled their motherlands conquered by the new and unwanted Communist regime. The 19-year war cost the lives of over 3 million serviceman and civilians and forced over 2 million to flee the war to Thailand, Malaysia, and Philippines. Most escaped by hand and feet, crawling, running, then eventually finding themselves in crowded, unsafe and small boats crossing the Mekong River. Over 50,000 were sent back, more than 500,000 drowned, while those who chose to stay behind and resisted the new rule were sent to Communist reeducation camps—a place designated to torture anyone, especially the ranking officials, both physically and mentally until they accept the new policy, then are released years after. The exodus to freedom included South Vietnameses, Cambodians, and Laotians. By the end of the war in 1975 approximately, 20,000 Laotians escaped, including our family. Now over 250,000 of them live throughout the United States. Currently, the population of Laos (6.5 million people) remains under Communist rule. The people live under extreme poverty, about one third, now live on less than $1.25 a day. The church has made great stride providing humanitarian effort to improve the current situation.
Like thousands affected by the war, we faced a tough decision, return to our native country and conform to the new government, or seek freedom and better opportunities elsewhere. The later was more promising. The next two years were spent transitioning between three separate camps waiting for sponsorship anywhere. Our passage to freedom hung solely on hope for better life. The long journey west and the events which transpired the next several years impacted my life in ways I could never have imagined during those primitive years of deprivation of freedom, life’s basic necessities, or even a place to call “home.” Life in the Refugee Camps was bittersweet and less than ideal by anyone’s normal living standards, but in retrospect, a source from which I can still draw some lessons of life.
At last, our dream became a reality. We arrived at Dulles Internal Airport in the middle of winter of 1981. My first thought after landing, was “why is there so much salt on the ground?” I was later corrected it was snow! Our sponsors immediately added our family of five to their family of nine. The living space was limited, but we were grateful because it was so much more and better than where we came from.
This new life required major adjustments, and new discoveries—a time to become acclimated with modern conveniences. Besides snow, we discovered electronics and appliances. The first time my children heard this story, they thought I was from the “caveman era,” and were amazed that I actually survived without T.V.! Aside from showing us the use and operation of those new and unfamiliar devices like a sink, stove, T.V., shower, toilet, etc., our sponsors also introduced us to church. I was excited! I got ready every Sunday, dressed in my best Sunday hand-me-downs and walked a few blocks, trekking the snowy path to a nearby Baptist church. I can recall sitting in one of the pews with my little legs dangling, wondering what people were saying, doing, singing, and wishing I could understand it all. My English speaking skill was equivalent to that of toddlers, limited to two of their common words, “Yes and No.”
Due to my lack of English proficiency I was placed in third grade and in the E.S.L program, a.k.a. English as a Second Language. Slowly, my vocabulary list expanded, but not enough to follow basic conversation. By the end of the following year, my grades gradually improved. With better English skills, came an increased thirst for information and intense curiosity, especially in religion and Jesus Christ.
After six months living with our sponsor, we moved to our first townhouse in Manassas city, which caught on fire one year later due to an electrical failure of a used radio given to us by a member of our sponsoring family. The move was the pivotal point of the beginning of my second “journey” and discovery in this new life; a prerequisite to what the Lord had prepared for us.
With limited English and lack of formal education, my mother found work in a distant city in a meat factory, earning minimal wage. My sister and I only saw her on the weekends. Her modest income was insufficient to support us then. We needed help. Through referrals, we moved to a government-subsidized housing or what many considered the “project.” This move was a blessing in disguise! The rough neighborhood provided more growing pain and eye-opening experiences. As a new family or a “new kid on the block” of the community, our presence was not well accepted initially, perhaps due to our strange accent, appearance, quiet, and removed demeanor. The people living there led less-than-ideal lifestyles, facing tough realities daily. The children often followed the patterns set by their parents whose choices of entertainment consisted of drugs, pornography, violence, drinking, smoking, fighting, and foul language. The situation escalated by the day, eventually a police station was integrated into the community. We survived by staying out of harms’ way or their way and minded our own business. Some neighbors, however, chose to make it their business to let us know we were not welcomed. Quite often we woke up to find rocks or mounds of dirt stuck to our front door, thrown at it frequently, to send a message that we didn’t belong there. It was clear to me one day, that life in the “project” was more of the same. I knew there had to be “light at the end of the tunnel” for our family.
One next-door-neighbor, however, did reach out and befriended us. They even invited us to the L.D.S. church. After attending church activities a few times, the missionaries began teaching my family and me, but I paid more attention to them, firing countless questions at them during each visit. I asked them to explain the origin of the world, of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and their relationship to each other, particularly their purpose. They explained and clarified with charts, diagrams, pictures, words, and promises to find answers to questions they couldn’t answer immediately. In the meantime, I discovered other denominations by accepting invitations from school friends–a Seventh-day Adventist, a Catholic, a Baptist, and a Lutheran to join their congregations. Attending these churches fueled my awareness and questions even more. If everyone believed in one God, why are there so many different teachings and religions? The missionaries pointed me the most familiar scripture to Joseph Smith and many of us, in James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” During one fast and testimony meeting, the presence of the spirit was strong and uplifting, which helped me feel peace-the same spirit that beckoned me. I followed the counsel in that verse and the promise in Moroni 10:4 “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”
I learned that I had to ask the Lord Himself which religion was correct. I received my answer through that same peaceful feeling. My family and I joined the church in August 1987, six years after I saw the first picture of Christ. I am the only active member at the present time.
Prior to my conversion, I was raised a Buddhist. The influence of Buddhism, prepared and introduced me to religion, for that I am grateful. The core of Buddhism is, “You’re on your own, figure out this life or work out your salvation.” However, the burden of living a good life lies completely on me, as a Buddhist follower. Here are some examples. I am responsible for my past, present, and future. If I face misfortune, illness, then I have sinned in the previous life. For all the people who escaped Communism the same time as my family, but didn’t live to tell their story, they must have sinned in their previous life. If someone has stolen from me and get away with it, it’s because I owed that person in my previous life, or if I make bad choices now, I’ll be reincarnated or changed into one of the least respected creatures or animals on earth in my next life. All the natural cycles of life such as birth, illness, aging, and death, all bring suffering in this life. In order to end human sufferings, one must forsake worldly material and seek refuge in following Buddha, his teachings, and his community of monks and nuns in a monastery; living with the bare minimal, at the mercy and expense of villagers and community members to provide for them. Enlightenment or being in the state of empty existence is a means of self-improvement by extreme fasting, prayer, and meditation. These basic tenants have been more than just religion, but incorporated as cultural traditions practiced for many generations since the 6th century when Buddha took a quest to find an end to human sufferings. His teachings have been well accepted by most Southeast Asians. But some parts made no logical sense, even to a young, uneducated, and naïve 15-yr-old me. So, why did I convert from this good and noble teaching?
The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that earthly challenges are part of life, they strengthen and prepare us for higher purpose. The Book of Mormon teaches, in 2 Nephi 2:11“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” Overcoming the world encourages spiritual growth, but it doesn’t require us run away from the world, abandoning all human desires, appetites, and passion to live in a jungle meditating until starvation, to achieve this goal. The gospel teaches us to be independent and self-reliant, which requires those natural drives and ambitions, the very things that Buddhist teaches to renounce. Great accomplishments, inventions, and innovations are born of deep passion towards higher achievements for the betterment and progress of ourselves and the world around us. Having cleared conscience through prayer and deep meditation help us cultivate a habit of reaching out to higher power, but this can be achieved in any private setting through the expression of sincere and personal thoughts without the need to cite or perform by a set of rituals; without the need for specific relics, statue, or of fasting until reaching the state of emptiness or merely existing. It took me a long time to learn the chant in Buddhism, and can still do it to this day. I honestly can’t tell you what it all mean and I have never felt enlightened by it. Prayer and meditation, if done properly help us gain eternal perspective and meaning to life. Buddha was a wise teacher, a philosopher, who never claimed to be a Savior, he only wanted to prove to himself that he could overcome temporal sufferings. He died at age 80.
To me, the core of Jesus Christ’s teaching is, “You’re NOT on your own, I gave up my life for you so you know how much I love you! I have figured it all so you won’t have to, but only if you follow me.”
After joining the church, the power of the atonement inspired me to rise to the challenges and responsibility which lie ahead. Due to my inexperience and unrefined communication skills, I grew shy over a long period of time, almost wishing no one could see me at school or church. However, after a few years of fellowshipping by faithful members, even those who woke me up early to drive me to seminary, Home teachers and Visiting teachers who consistently reached out to me, offered support, encouragement, and continuous love and friendship; through their tireless efforts, I was able to look past my circumstances. They helped me see the “light at the end of the tunnel.” By the end of my high school sophomore year, I knew I wanted to do more with my life. With so much clarity and purpose, I wanted to embark on opportunities that will help improve my family’s situation, to get us out of the “project.” I considered the possibility of obtaining an early high school graduation, eventually met all the requirements, and graduated by the end of my junior year. I applied for and was accepted to B.Y.U the following fall semester. During my college sophomore year, after reading my patriarchal blessing, I felt a strong inclination to serve a full-time mission. My poor mother, inactive at the time, was not happy when I broke the first news to her that I was leaving thousands of miles away from home to Provo, Utah, for school. The second news of being sent across the country to serve was hard for her to swallow or even accept. She told me recently that she cried many nights while I was on my mission. I served 19 months in Fresno, California. The one extra month beyond normal assignment was due to my request. The mission president denied any more request after that. He said I needed to return home and get married—much easier said than done. After graduating, still single in 1998, my next goal was to pursue graduate school. Joining the Air Force seemed like a good choice in order to afford this endeavour. I spent the summer after graduation at home, relaxing with my family, attending the local institute program for young adults. There, I became reacquainted with Carl Bohman, someone I met briefly on my mission. However, our meeting this time was by a request from his former missionary companion, who happened to be my former M.T.C., co-teacher. He wanted to reconnect with Carl. At the same time, Carl connected with me too by loaning me his laptop. I was not open or available at the time, but the laptop helped change my mind. My plan of joining the air force was detoured by our Temple wedding in August of 1999, then more detours with three children. The Lord had a different and better plan for me.
Each event in my life prepared me for the next. Yes, my family had to flee our home in Laos, risked our lives, and gave up what little we had, and suffered the injustice of others’ choices, but those had to happen as part of the Lord’s purpose for my family to position us where we could receive the gospel. The Lord knew what He was doing long before we did. He prepared us and others so they could be where they are now. Sure, there were many who didn’t make it out safely, were separated from families, ended up being captured tragically, or even death. Life’s challenges didn’t end even after the safe journey for me and others in similar situation. A longtime friend, shortly, after arriving in the US lost his father in a car accident, causing his mother to be wheelchair-bound to this day. As an older sibling of four, he was burdened. Yet, he was never without a smile on his face. He embraced the gospel, served a mission, pursued and received his G.E.D., married in the temple, had a successful career. He currently operates a successful restaurant in Draper Utah with his wife and four children.
To this day, I have yet to unite with my biological father due to unsophisticated communication infrastructure, finance, and time. We have not been properly connected. My older sister and the rest of our family were united after twenty years of separation. The Lord has different plans for all of us. The gospel is enlightening and can truly bring peace and comfort to the soul. Jesus did atone, meaning he volunteered his life so we can gain strength by following Him and His plan. We don’t have to figure our purpose or navigate this life all alone. With the Lord’s help we can move forward feeling secured in the knowledge that God loves each of us the same, irrespective of our color, ethnic, or family background. Beneath the color of our skin, we are one of the same, children of God. We love and hurt deeply regardless of our financial status or title. What set us apart from one another is the family we were born into and the choices we make. We don’t know who in our midst the Lord has prepared to receive His truth; He doesn’t expect us to preach but to share his message in the best way we know how to do it. Those with the blood of Israel, as promised in the scriptures have been prepared and will seek out for the Lord’s true church, they will recognize and feel the familiarity of His truth. We, as members don’t have to rehearse, or convince others to recognize Jesus Christ, but only offer the opportunity to share His message. His message itself will testify of its truthfulness.
I am grateful for the influence of those who have made a difference in my life, particularly one who invited me to church, along with all the members I have met. I have friends and mentors of diverse religious, cultural, and financial backgrounds, who have inspired me to seek after goodness. God is good and will continue to bless those who choose him ultimately as their judge.
Jesus Christ healed my emotional and mental wounds of resentment, anger, and injustice. His spirit has carried me through all my storms of life, big or small. He has suffered all, more than anyone who ever walked this earth, yet He still loves me, including all my misdeeds. He is the ultimate source of peace and comfort and the only ONE who can remove earthly sufferings, in His own time. This I share, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.