Along a long and difficult path, the Lord has proven to be a Good Shepherd.
Shong Thao, a member of Grace Hmong, Kansas City, Kan., was a lay delegate to the 2017 synod convention. But his journey to Watertown, Wisconsin, last summer was longer than most.
Thao was born in Laos in 1958 at the cusp of the Secret War, a civil war between the Communist Party and the Royal Lao government.
Thao was born into a Christian family, one of the first in Laos. Prior to knowing Christ as their Savior, his clan had strong and deep roots in the Hmong religion. In fact, his grandfather was considered a powerful shaman in the region, with many families asking him to “remove evil” (heal the sick) in their households. After one particular attempt at “removing evil,” his grandfather came down with a sudden and severe illness and died.
Not long after his grandfather’s death, Thao’s uncle, the new clan leader of the Thao family, met a Christian missionary. Thao’s uncle listened to the missionary, realizing that the traditional religion might not really be the answer. The Holy Spirit led his uncle to share Christianity with the entire clan.
Christianity was an entirely new concept to the Thao clan, but the missionary spoke Laotian and could teach the faith to the family. It’s a faith that would help Thao and his family alone their decades-long journey of danger and uncertainty.
Through the valley
Thao was the smallest of eight children. He said that he was born small and didn’t grow because of poor nutrition in his early years. His father worked on a farm to support the family, but by 1960 the political tensions reached his village and signs of conflict appeared in the form of helicopters and a military presence. The family moved from village to village to stay safe.
Thao’s older sister, at 16 years old, married a military captain. His mom saw this as an opportunity to keep Thao safe and ensure he received an education. So Thao went to live with his sister and stayed there for three years without seeing his parents. He says he remembers crying and wanting to be with his mom, but his sister reassured him that she would care for him.
After three years with his sister, he moved again to live with one of his brothers in a different city, but fighting broke out in the region and they had to move again. His family trekked through the jungle for a week to reach a safer city. Thao, now about 10 years old, was finally back with his parents, but soon his mom died.
Despite the war and the constant moving, Thao continued attending school and graduated from the Laotian school system when he was 15 years old. The war had been raging for more than a decade, and it seemed no end was in site. After graduation, he wanted to go into the military with his cousin and become an officer.
The United States was heavily involved in the Secret War. The policy at the time called for the CIA to coordinate the Hmong people to form an army and defend the country. At 15 years old, Thao got his first job working for the CIA as a mechanic.
Through all of this—the hunger, separation from his parents, treacherous journeys through the jungle, constantly moving, and the raging battles of war—Thao knew that the Lord is his Good Shepherd, who guides him and keeps him safe.
The war finally ended, but because of his work with the CIA, Thao’s life was in danger in Laos after the Communist Party took over the country. After six months in a refugee camp, he was granted refugee status, and at 17 years old he arrived in Wausau, Wisconsin
Despite finishing his education in Laos and already working for the U.S. military—experiences unlike anything U.S. teenagers would have endured—his next big battle would be enrolling in an American high school to study English. He said that he felt like a “dummy.” When the school year ended, the church that sponsored him as a refugee offered him a job as a summer custodian at the school.
When fall came, he didn’t go back to high school but rather attended a technical school and began working full time. He eventually enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh to study social work.
Between working and going to school, he met his wife, who joined the church and was baptized after meeting him. By 1980, the first of his eight children was born. In a few short years, as a young man, Thao was making a life for himself in the United States. He finished his degree in social work and ended up working to help other immigrants as they settled in the U.S.
But the demands of work and education while in the the early days of starting a family as well as the harrowing events and images he couldn’t shake from his youth took their toll. He suffered depression for many years and, at one time, was even hospitalized for it. Thao, who readily attests to the power of prayer, says he prayed to God for peace the whole time he was in the hospital. He credits his Good Shepherd with providing comfort in his darkest hours. While the memories and images of war have never left him, he says he knows God is always with him, guiding him and taking care of him.
Thao and his family didn’t stay in Wisconsin, and he didn’t spend his whole career in social work. He says he liked to experience different types of jobs, and they moved around the country a few times, each time finding a new church to join.
Dwelling in the house of the Lord
It wasn’t until they moved to Kansas City three years ago that they joined their first WELS church. Grace is a predominantly Hmong congregation, and Thao says he felt drawn to it because he wanted to see it grow. Attending the synod convention this summer reinvigorated him and helped him grow in his conviction that Lutherans teach the true Word of God. He says he wants more Hmong people to know Christ as their Savior.
In the last few years he has experienced some significant health problems, including more than one heart attack and bypass surgery. Although it was scary and painful, he says he knows it was another thing that God guided him through. He’s knows he’s here because God has a purpose for him.
Now his children are all adults and living on their own, each attending church regularly. He also has seven grandchildren. With the perspective he has from his life experiences, he says the number one thing he wants for his children is to “love their Christian family and love each other.” He teaches them never to have to depend on anyone but God and, at the same time, always to be willing to help someone else.
Through his trials, he sees all the times God has protected him, blessed him, and put people in his life to help him. Now his goal is to be able to help others.
Amanda Klemp is a member at Gethsemane, Davenport, Iowa.
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Author: Amanda Klemp
Volume 105, Number 1
Issue: January 2018
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