Confessions of faith: Phetsanghane

God’s arm is not to short to save. He can reach around the world to rescue sinners and make them part of his people.

Souksamay K. Phetsanghane

Imagine someone born into a Buddhist family, in a communist country, where there were few Christians and fewer Lutherans. What would be the chances that person would come to faith in the Lord? Improbable? Impossible?

God works in difficult situations

My parents were born in Laos in southeast Asia. Laos is almost exactly halfway around the world from Wisconsin. I was born in 1982 into a country that is two-thirds Buddhist. That religion shapes Laos’ culture and landscape. Seven years before I was born, Laos fell to Communism. Christianity became more often persecuted than permitted. Today Christians number approximately 150,000 of the 7 million people in Laos. No one had ever heard of Lutheranism and certainly had no knowledge of WELS. What would be the chances I would ever hear the gospel? Slim to none, right?

But as in all our lives, our Lord stepped in to make us his own. In communist Laos, my parents knew that there was no future for their son and soon-to-be-born second son. So in 1984, they decided to flee to Thailand, a country separated from Laos only by the Mekong River. When crossing that river, my parents left Laos with only the clothes on their backs and the items they could carry. My mother was pregnant with my brother; I was a two-year-old. They left behind all they knew and entered one of the many refugee camps in Thailand. Still, there was little chance of hearing the gospel.

But our Lord stepped in. In 1975, the United States had passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. This helped families like ours immigrate to the United States. We spent one year in a Thai refugee camp. Then we spent another in the Philippines, awaiting approval for our U.S. immigration. Through this act, the United States only allowed a few thousand people to immigrate each year. In addition to approval, a refugee family also needed a U.S. person or group “to sponsor” them. Refugee sponsors agreed to help the refugees acclimate to life in the States. Hearing the gospel became a little more realistic but still not much of a chance.

Our Lord stepped in again. Lutheran Social Services (LSS), an arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, helped my family find a sponsor. Our sponsor was a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation in Springfield, Illinois. Finally, my parents, my two-year-old brother and I, almost four years old now, were on our way to the United States. However, the LCMS congregation backed out, without warning or explanation. If there was no sponsor for my family, we would have to remain in the Philippines. Hopes faded.

Our Lord stepped in one more time. The LSS ended up calling a WELS congregation, Peace, Granger, Ind. The LSS talked to Peace’s pastor at the time, Michael Hintz. He had the impression that the LSS was just calling churches out of a phone book; the congregation had never previously sponsored a refugee family. After the call, Pastor Hintz discussed it with Peace’s members. One member is remembered to have responded, “We can do something about this; we can help this family.” In about an hour, Peace had decided to get into an unknown situation sponsoring an unknown family. The Lord changed the gap between the impossible and improbable to reality.

God works through his people

On Nov. 13, 1986, about 10:45 p.m., my family and I arrived at the little airport in South Bend, Indiana. Total strangers were there to meet us. People we met for the first time. People who would eventually become family and even closer. Peace’s members faithfully carried out their responsibilities as our refugee sponsors. They taught my parents where to go for doctor’s appointment, where to buy groceries, how to drive a car, and a lot more.

Of the entire congregation that helped, two people stick out in my mind: Bob and June Koester. Here are some reasons why. I was a four-year-old who had never known snow. Now I was in northern Indiana right before winter. So Bob and June Koester got me my first snowsuit—it was bright red. Red is still my favorite color. I remember them throwing me my first birthday party in America and introducing me to American food.

I specifically also remember them—and the entire Peace congregation—sharing their faith with us. Not just with words, but by the mere act of sponsoring a refugee family. Certainly, they shared with us how to live in America. Most important, they shared with us their Lord, the reason for all they did for us.

Pastor Hintz would spend the better part of two years taking my parents through a Bible Information Class. The length was due to the language barrier. I remember being baptized on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1988. The Koesters were my sponsors and godparents. I remember my parents getting confirmed on March 5, 1989. As June Koester recalled, “There was not a dry eye in the congregation.” I remember the examples of Christian love and service from Peace’s members.

Fast-forward to the present, I now serve our Lord as a pastor in his kingdom. My family lives in Florida. My sister is named after June Koester. Peace Lutheran is still spreading the gospel. Bob and June Koester are now among the saints triumphant.

God works out of love and grace

I am often asked: Was it difficult converting from Buddhism to Lutheranism? Conversion is all our Lord’s work, so in that sense, it was easy. However, it was also easy in another sense. How I lived as a Buddhist is basically how I live as a Lutheran: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

Between the two religions, the actions may look the same, but the motivation is vastly different. The motivation in Buddhism is to earn your way into Nirvana, the Buddhist version of heaven. If you do not do enough good deeds in this life, then you get reincarnated to try again in a new life. This cycle repeats until you have done enough good deeds to reach Nirvana. For us as Lutherans, we “do to others . . .” because of what our Lord has first done for us. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Our good deeds are our thanks for all our Lord has done.

So what happened, and why am I here? It’s grace—God’s undeserved love to me and my family. That is the sole reason why any of us are a part of God’s family! Indeed, we all have an amazing account of our Lord’s love and grace to us. It always his grace that brings us into his family. God used his faithful people who share the gospel to make it happen. It may not be as dramatic as my story, but it just as amazing. We all thankfully remember, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:16).

Souksamay Phetsanghane, a professor at Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wisconsin, is a member at St. John, Watertown.



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Author: Souksamay K. Phetsanghane
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

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