Simple Greatness: The Story of My Hmong Father
How is the gospel real to you? This was a question that I was asked in college.
As part of a campus ministry, I heard the word “gospel” thrown around a lot, but as for how it was real to me, that wasn’t as easy to explain. The short answer was that the gospel is real to me because it’s how God saved me. The truth of the gospel is alive to me because by it God made me alive. But as I looked closer at God’s work in my life, I began to notice a “tangible remnant” of Jesus’s love for me. It’s embedded deep in my story as a Hmong-American. Let me explain.
Meet the Hmong
If you’re familiar with the Twin Cities of Minnesota, you’ve heard about a people group called the Hmong (the H is silent). We are a group of war refugees that immigrated to the Midwest in the late 1970s and early 80s, because of the Vietnam War. In the Twin Cities metro, there are over 66,000 Hmong people — the largest concentration of Hmong in the United States.
The Hmong are an agricultural people group, known as the “hill tribe,” originating from the mountains of Laos. Some historians even trace them back to western China. Many of the Hmong people were persecuted by the surrounding Laotians and Thais because of their independent way of life and unwillingness to conform to the dominant society. In fact, the reason the Hmong people lived among the mountains is because they wanted to be independent, even though it’s a harder agricultural lifestyle when compared to the fertile low land.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. government allied with the Hmong because of the Hmong’s strong anti-communist views. Hmong men were trained to conduct hit-and-run tactics against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), guard secret U.S. radar stations and bases, and rescue American pilots shot down over Laos and Vietnam. A promise was made that anyone who fought with the Americans would get a free pass to the States if the war was lost and the Hmong no longer had a home. Many of the young Hmong men joined up and started fighting against the communists, that is, the NVA and local Laotian communist groups.
My father was one of these men.
Meet My Dad
My father and his brothers were recruited by the CIA and trained in guerrilla warfare. They were paid a small wage and given weapons to fight for the United States.
After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the American troops moved out of Vietnam and all of South East Asia, including the villages of their Hmong allies in northern Laos. Left completely vulnerable to the communists, many Hmong people were hunted down and killed. The communist soldiers invaded one village after another, killing the children, raping the women, and torturing the men to death. Many were sent to “re-education camps” and were never heard from again.
Some Hmong people were given asylum in the States, but the majority of them where left behind to fend for themselves. To escape this genocide, the Hmong people started fleeing west towards Thailand. Parents carried their children into hiding and slowly made their way through dense jungle, until they came to the Mekong River (the Mississippi River of Southeast Asia). Crossing the Mekong River had to be done at night, in the dark, with makeshift floatation devices from bamboo. Many Hmong people drowned on this river because of enemy attacks, the strong current, and harsh conditions. (Both my parents lost their spouses at the Mekong crossing and were widowed when they met each other in Thailand.) If they crossed the river, then they would be able to settle in the refugee camps in Thailand. That is where my siblings and I were born, and where I spent the first five years of my life.
When We Moved to America
Since my father fought for the United States, it was easier for him to get a pass to the country. I still remember going through customs and getting my picture taken for my residential alien card. I was entering a brand-new world. It wasn’t until about seven years ago that my grandmother told me the whole history of my father back in Laos.
He never talked about it, but my father, in the midst of intense hardship, was a leader in his village. He had a commanding presence and was highly respected by the other men. He would have been considered as something similar to a mayor.
But when the opportunity came for him to move his family to America, he left it all. Away from his work, away from his comfort, away from his high social status — my father walked away from it all to live in a country whose language he didn’t speak and whose culture he didn’t know. He abandoned his authority, and the respect he had won, to welcome jobs and endure insults sadly typical for a middle-aged immigrant in America who doesn’t speak English.
And he did it so that his children would have a better life. I didn’t know what I needed. I didn’t know the extent of the danger around me. But my father became nothing so that my siblings and I could live in peace.
My father has worked hard to provide for us, but even more than that, he has fought for our family as our spiritual leader. When I was in high school, I remember waking up early one morning to find him kneeling in his dirty work clothes, praying for each of his children by name. That image has stayed with me since, and I would learn that he and my mother repeated this routine everyday before he left for a long day of work.
The Greatest Kind of Love
The message of the gospel is that we need a Savior. We’ve turned away from God in our sin and deserve his wrath. But Jesus, though he was rich, became poor for us so that we, in his poverty, might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He left his status so that we might know a new one: righteous, forgiven, at peace with God.
So how is this real to me? How do I stay alive to the gospel’s wonder?
Everyday I see glimmers of the gospel’s light in my father. He is a simple man in American terms. He still doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t have an education. He works hard with his hands to earn a living. But for three decades, he has preached the gospel to me with his words, and exemplified it with his life. He laid his life down for my siblings and me, which as Jesus says, is the way that he loves, and the greatest kind of all (John 15:12–13).
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