Once a boy soldier in the "secret war" in Laos, today Xing Yang of Clovis is ready to become a pastor — at age 59.
In 1979, he fled communist-controlled Laos with his wife and two children. They ran through the jungle, swam across the Mekong River, dodged bullets and found safety at Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. A year later, they settled in Joliet, Ill., seeking a better life.
Now, Yang has earned a bachelor of theology and is ready to become pastor of a new congregation, Hmong Evangelical Lutheran Church, in central Fresno.
"He has come from so many years after the war to achieve so much," says son Pou Kong Yang, who keeps in his wallet a tattered photo of his father when he was living in the refugee camp.
Pastoral Studies Institute at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, Wis., designs programs for refugees and immigrants to study special curriculum that relates to them and to navigate a timetable that fits their lives. Yang set out on an eight-year plan, which required him to travel to towns up and down California where the institute provides classroom teaching.
Institute director E. Allen Sorum says Yang faced an uphill battle.
Hmong traditionally aren't Christians. They traditionally follow animism, a belief in the existence of spirits and demons. Shamans and witch doctors are called upon to thwart them. According to data used by the Pastoral Studies Institute, 350,000 Hmong refugees live in North America — and 250,000 practice their traditional beliefs.
Sorum says he sees growth, however, in Hmong people converting to Christianity. Many are introduced to the faith by Christian "witnesses" at refugee camps. After they settle in the United States, Hmong visit American churches to learn more. Yang heard the Gospel message in a refugee camp. In the United States, he attended a Methodist church in St. Paul, Minn.
Refugees also try to assimilate as they hold on to important parts of their culture, Sorum says. That can lead to conflict between first-, second- and third-generation family members, who vary in how much they want to assimilate or hold on to traditional ways.
However, Sorum says refugees can follow a natural progression to want to share their conversions with others as they spend more time in the United States.
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which oversees the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, has reached out to Hmong for about 30 years, and it now has 10 Hmong pastors within the synod. Thirty-two seminarians have graduated from the Pastoral Studies Institute. Of them, Yang became the 19th Hmong or Laotian.
"This brother worked very, very hard to achieve his bachelor of theology, and I am very, very proud of him," Sorum says. "He is so gracious and humble. I just have huge respect for him.
"This is how our seminary is trying to approach this next millennia — to train those who come from overseas."
A guerrilla fighter
The son of a farmer who tended to cattle, horses, goats and water buffalo, Yang was born in a small village of about 200 in the providence of Xieng Khouang.
At 12, he became a soldier in the "secret war" in Laos, when the CIA in the 1960s and '70s worked with the government to fight communism.
"They came into schools and forced any student who could carry an (M1) Carbine rifle to fight," he remembers. "They needed help."
In 1965, he lugged that rifle, draped a bullet belt across his chest, hid in trenches that he dug and waged guerrilla warfare.
"We would shoot to the place where we heard shooting," he says.
After 1 1/2 years, his mother, Xee, won an appeal that Yang shouldn't have to fight since her husband and three older brothers also were in the war.
Yang continued his education and became a teacher. But, in 1970, he returned to the jungle to help fight at Boum Long, a village that was fired on the heaviest.
In 1975, when the war ended, the communist government in Laos found out Yang had fought and sent him — and others — to jail. He was released after less than a year when someone "vouched" for him.
With many people running across Laos to Thailand, the government appointed Yang as a security leader. His job was to arrest those who tried to flee. Many escaped under Yang's watch, so he was sent to jail again. A year later, he was released.
Orphaned by the war, Yang realized he had no choice but to flee with his family. In 1979, they ran for their lives, reaching the Thai refugee camp. Their youngest child died there.
In 1980, after an interview, Yang, his wife and a son were allowed to board a flight to the U.S. with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
On their third day in Joliet, Yang got a job as a custodian at First Baptist Church. He knew no English, but he got some help. "I was taught English by another custodian — Jack Hutchinson," Yang says. "But there were many times when I cried. He spoke to me, and I didn't understand."
Less than a year later, a nephew visited the Yangs and persuaded them to move to St. Paul, which had a high concentration of Hmong refugees and special programs for them.
There, Yang enrolled in English as second language courses and worked toward his GED. At night, he worked at a Honeywell factory, cutting metal as a machinist.
Remembering the Christians who shared their faith in the refugee camps, Yang started to attend a Methodist church. He became a Christian and started reading his Bible to learn more about his faith.
"But it was frustrating to me: what the love of God is and how God helps you," he remembers.
Three years later, the factory shut down. A cousin/pastor, Nhia Sou Yang, was interested in evangelizing in Orange County. He persuaded Yang to move to Fresno.He also wanted to tap into Yang's English skills for his evangelization.
In 1984, Yang moved to Fresno, where he began to see how God had a hand on his life.
Shaped by God
While in Fresno, Yang struggled with issues about faith and culture.
"I am strong in the Hmong culture," he says. "After becoming a Christian, I wondered what is the difference between culture and the love of God. I read my Bible every day."
In 1990, he became president of Lao Evangelical Church. In 2004, when Yang completed his presidency, his life took an usual turn when he met a clergy member with St. Peter Lutheran Church in Clovis. Yang learned about the Pastoral Studies Institute program for refugees just like him. He went to St. Peter Lutheran and said yes to the seminary.
"I was getting old, about 50, and I said, 'I will die some day,' " he says. "I said, 'Why don't I become one of God's slaves?' It was something I could tell God: 'Here I am, use me.' "
In 2005, he enrolled in the institute, but there were many challenges, especially studying and learning Greek and Hebrew.
The Rev. Michael Carr, who became pastor of St. Peter Lutheran in November 2009, became one of Yang's primary institute teachers. Carr taught courses Thursdays at St. Peter.
Yang always carried an electronic dictionary with him.
"Studying any language that is not your first language is very difficult," Carr says. "This is what he's been doing, plugging away all these years.
"There were times, I would talk over his head. He would ask a question. I would try to figure out a way to explain. He would always use a highlight pen to mark things he didn't understand. Later, he would look it up and figure it out. As far as learning, it was exhausting for him.
"From a human standpoint, the journey he has taken is mind-boggling."
A humble man
Nearly everyone who meets Yang comes to a similar realization: He is special, a humble man who wants to help others.
Daniel Thao, 28, of Fresno completed the institute program with Yang. Many times, they traveled in the same car for hours to the classrooms.
"He is a hard worker," Thao says. "He puts his heart and soul into everything he does in order to achieve what he wants."
Ue Yang says her father has always encouraged his children to pursue higher education and to see the opportunities in America. She says her father always put his own plans for higher education on hold — until God called him to seminary.
"It was so encouraging for us kids to come home and see Dad studying," she says. "I came home, and sometimes I didn't feel like studying, and I would see Dad.
"He would turn on a lamp in a corner of the house — not all the lights because he didn't want to disturb anyone. It encouraged us to work hard."
Xing Yang and his wife set goals for all their children to graduate from high school. When that happened, they upped it to "going to college and having a decent job," his daughter says.
Two other Yang daughters graduated with master's degrees from UCLA this year. Ue Yang says the children also have been inspired by their mother, who works two jobs as a housekeeper.
Ue Yang says she didn't hear her father tell his story until just several years ago: "It took Dad years to open up," she says. "He is so humble."
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