“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . .”
A refugee is someone who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Today, more than 60 million refugees are seeking protection in our unsettled world. We should be reminded the Jesus was once a refugee, too, when he and his family fled to Egypt to escape the tyranny of King Herod. Certainly, the community must have invited in and cared for the frightened family of three.
In 1975, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in San Diego invited in a frightened family of ten, the Do-Thien family, who were then refugees from Vietnam. After an arduous journey, the two parents, the wife’s sister, five daughters and a son all landed in the United States territory island of Guam. As soon as they touched ground, the mother went into labor and their sixth daughter was born, making her the first U.S. citizen of the family. In gratitude for the renewed hope that America had given them, the baby was named Kieu My, which means “America the Beautiful.”
The Do-Thien family was eventually sent to a refugee camp at the Marine Corp Base in Camp Pendleton in north San Diego County. They lived in a small tent at the camp for nearly two months, uncertain about their future. Through miraculous connections with the American Red Cross in Guam, a U.S. Navy Captain, and the relative of a church member, St. Mark’s became aware of the family. Mary Ness, a member of St. Mark’s since 1970, was among the group that went searching for them.
With Mary’s leadership and help from many of St. Mark’s members, the congregation provided housing, furniture, supplies and daily staples for the Do-Thien family. The church rented a house for them and provided financial assistance until they became self-supporting. Mary said simply, “They were just a family that needed help.” But, being there when the children came home from school, bringing home cooked meals, and arranging backyard picnics helped the family assimilate to American culture. Member Charles Ballinger remembers visiting a local dry cleaners run by a Vietnamese man to learn how to pronounce the names of the family members so they would feel welcome. Mary led the church in building long-lasting relationships and offering more than just a monetary assistance.
Forty years later, on September 20, 2015, the family was invited to celebrate the anniversary of their arrival in the U.S. during worship at St. Mark’s UMC. Daughter, Truc Do shared the family’s story about fleeing Vietnam and the way St. Mark’s helped them until they were established in the community. “The church and its congregation didn’t just sponsor our family out of the refugee camp. You rescued us, and you changed our lives,” said Truc Do.
Truc Do and all of her siblings have graduated from college, and some from graduate school. They have all found meaningful and rewarding careers. They have all fallen in love and gotten married. Some of the next generation have begun college, as well.
At the reunion, the Do-Thien family offered a generous financial gift to St. Mark’s so that the church could help other refugee families as they seek to settle in San Diego. “Your generosity and kindness has been like a candle that has lit a thousand more,” said the family. As Charles Ballinger put it, “They did not come here to take from this country; they came to give back.”
On April 5, 2016, using the funds provided by the Do-Thien family, St. Mark’s UMC presented the International Rescue Committee with 12 Chrome laptops and 24 thumb drives to assist IRC’s Laptop Project, which provides assistance to refugees searching and applying for jobs online with the support of IRC’s employment team. It is impossible to know how many lives will be changed because of jobs found using these computers, but for many of the IRC’s clients the laptops represent hope for an unseen future.
And in response to Truc Do’s story, 25 people from St. Mark’s have volunteered to help with refugee assistance.
More candles have been lit in darkness. More hope has been revealed in new light. More love has been shared in and through the name of Christ.
“. . .truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:35-40