My first house was a grass hut, deep in the jungles of Laos where the sun did not shine.
My mother died only a few weeks after giving birth to me, and my father left in the war. I grew up in a remote Khmu village with my grandparents and ten other families, scratching out a living with our chickens and pigs. It was all I knew, yet somehow by age ten I found myself declaring, “I need an education.” So I took ten chickens and two pigs, and headed to the big city to sell them.
In the big city, I saw cars for the first time, and wondered why they were so sad, crying “Beep - beep” when I crossed in front of them. And how did they get the little people inside the magic box, the one they called “radio”? It was all very strange. I decided to leave that city, and swam across the river into Thailand.
My next house was a refugee camp.
By age twelve I had joined a gang; there was not much else for me to do. We would sneak out at night to the villages and kick-box for money.
One afternoon in the camp, I was asked if I wanted to see a movie. I had no idea what a movie was, but I went anyway. The movie was about a man named Jesus, who seemed to be a loser; he was caught by his enemies and killed. In the gang, I learned that you should never get caught.
At the movie, I was invited to go to church the next morning. There was free soymilk and cookies, and I liked the music. But the man who invited me sat right beside me and put his arm around me and said, “Thank you, brother, for coming.” I thought in my mind, “When did I become your brother?”
The same man invited me to a Bible study to read God’s Word. I asked him, “Does God have words?”
A few days later, I was playing soccer in a field, and a girl called out to me, “Come to my house to eat with me and my parents.”
I went, because they were also Khmu, like me. And more free food sounded good! I found out that this family was immigrating to America. I had dreamed about leaving, but I was an orphan and had no money and no one to sponsor me. So I asked them, “Can I go with you?”
The man looked thoughtful, and then he responded, “Yes, okay. But at the Consulate, we must tell them that you are my nephew. And once we are in America, you are on your own.”
At the Consulate, they knew I wasn’t his nephew, but they let me go anyway.
When I arrived in Oklahoma, I was shocked. I had expected to build a hut and hunt in the jungles, but it was nothing like I expected. I felt lost and confused.
When we went to the church, there was a wall with photos of all the different refugees they had sponsored. As I looked at the photos, I saw someone I recognized. It was a friend of mine from Laos, and I found out that he was living in North Carolina. So I told everyone that I was going to walk there, and they laughed at me. But somehow I made it anyway, and I moved into his house.
There were twelve of us living together, crowded into one living room with mattresses all over the floor. I had a sheet that I spread out at night, right behind the door. There were drugs and alcohol everywhere, and I had only one set of clothes that I washed every night.
At that point, I understood almost no English, but I was still determined to go to school. Every day, I would walk five miles in my sandals to go to my classes. I did not know about buses or free lunches, so I spent the lunch hour sitting on the steps of the school. I was so hungry.
One day, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and looked up to see a beautiful lady peering into my eyes with deep concern. “Son,” she said, “what is the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” I said, “I’m just hungry.”
She grabbed my arm, pulled me to the cafeteria and fed me hotdogs. I didn’t know why she was doing that for me. After that, she came every day to find me. I found out that she worked in the school system. I didn’t understand why she cared about me. She kept asking about where I lived. At times, I wondered if she would take me somewhere and sell me.
One day, while I was walking, she drove up to me and pulled me into her car. She demanded that I show her the house where I lived. I felt ashamed as she saw how I lived inside that house. She just cried and cried. Then she left without me, and drove away very fast. I wondered if I had made her mad.
A few days later, the school counselor called me into his office. I thought I was in trouble. But the lady was there, smiling. “Son”, she said, “you are coming to live in my house. You are my boy now.”
From that day on, everything changed for me. I heard the Gospel again, but this time I understood it. This time, I understood that Jesus was not a loser, but that he chose to die for me so that I could be forgiven, even though I didn’t deserve it. Just like I didn’t deserve to be loved and adopted by this lady. It was called grace, and my new house was full of it.
As I lived with this lady in her house and saw the Gospel lived out, I kept thinking of the grass hut in the jungle. I knew I needed to go back there someday. I needed to tell my grandmother and grandfather and all the people there about Jesus.
So today, with my wife and children, I am going back to Southeast Asia to share the Gospel with the Khmu people. Just like Joshua, I am saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).