I remember that day well.
On July 4, 1983, when I was 8 years old, I was moved to the Thu Duc Orphanage, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Until then I had been cared for by the nuns of Tu Xuong Orphanage.
I had been at Tu Xuong for years and, having been abandoned at a young age, didn’t remember my family. As the nuns prepared to leave me at this new orphanage, I was inconsolable. Once again I was being abandoned and placed in the hands of strangers. The nuns had taught me that I didn’t look Vietnamese and should never go with strangers.
The Mother Superior crouched down beside me and looked into my eyes, her own welling with tears. She smiled her patented smile, the kind that always made the world gentler for me. The kind that calmed my fears, eased my insecurities and reassured me that I was not alone in the world.
She put her hands on both my upper arms and held me tightly. “You are not alone,” she said. “You will always be loved by Jesus. Trust that. God has a vision and calling for you. You may not understand this now, but remember that you are being molded by God to serve his people.”
I stayed at the state-run Thu Duc for only three months—a lucky break for me. I suffered terrible treatment by the other children because I looked white and all of them were Vietnamese. I became a target for the anger of those orphaned because of the ongoing hardship of the Vietnam War. I learned that a war can continue long after the guns fall silent.
Resettled in Minnesota
In October 1983, I was brought to the United States through Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and placed with a loving Lutheran foster family in South Minneapolis that nurtured the seed of faith first planted by the nuns.
I never forgot what Mother Superior had said to me. Through the remaining years of my childhood, I often recalled her promise that God had a vision and mission for me. I worked toward the hope that God would reveal that vision and mission.
Throughout high school I was active at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Twin Cities. I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and by the time I graduated, I knew clearly that I was being called into ministry. I attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and was ordained in January 2002.
Back to Vietnam
In March 2023, I joined Dave Ellingson, an author and retired pastor, on a kayaking adventure through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on the Mekong River (see page 24). That trip allowed me to see more of the land of my birth, learn more of its beautiful culture and taste its amazing cuisine. The people I met along the way reaffirmed my belief that, no matter how U.S. media portray other cultures, the people of this world are genuinely wonderful, beyond altruistic and forever compassionate.
On one of my last days in Vietnam, I visited Tu Xuong Orphanage with Ellingson and our two traveling companions, Deby Cassill and David Gehrke. I tried to explain to them the pain, fear and constant anxiety of never knowing my birth parents. I was an orphan, and in a country that values pure bloodlines, I was only half Vietnamese.
So many times Mother Superior had crouched down beside me, held me close and whispered the promise that Jesus is love and that I am his.
“You will always be loved by Jesus. Trust that. God has a vision and calling for you. You may not understand this now, but remember that you are being molded by God to serve his people.”
Mother Superior has long since died, but as I stood there, her memory came rushing back to me in the most unexpected way. I had come with money to donate to the Tu Xuong Orphanage, now operated by the communist government. The director of the orphanage led us into a conference room with a large, red curtain hanging behind a bust of Ho Chi Minh. The director fielded our questions and explained how my money would be used.
At the end of our hourlong conversation, I asked about the nuns. He told me that we were currently sitting in the old chapel. His assistants then parted the red curtain behind the bust to reveal a large marble altar and a picture of Christ hanging over it. Just when I least expected Jesus, there he was.
Seeing that altar, I heard Mother Superior’s voice echo within me: You are not alone.
I may have spent the first eight years of my life walking in dark valleys, but Christ was beside me. As a child, I was like a broken crayon, but he helped me to make beautiful art with a life in ministry.
I will always remember Mother Superior.