by T. Gayle Lyconthuan Lee
A Buddhist at Heart
My family’s early beginnings were in China. Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers were Chinese who came to South Vietnam in 1900 when the ruling French colonial government encouraged Chinese to immigrate to Vietnam. After my parents got married and had three daughters, they began going to pagodas to pray for a son. When I was born, they named me Thuan, which means “the gods have consented.” My grandmother and mother often took me across the river to the Buddhist pagoda for instruction by the monks.
During senior high school and university, my mathematical ability secured me a job at the National Institute of Statistics. In 1966, I received military orders and an assignment to teach mathematics at the National Military Academy in Dalat. At the academy, I encountered my first native English speakers—American military advisors who taught at the academy. Previously I had studied English, but I could not understand the Americans when they spoke, and they could not understand me. Then one Saturday morning, I spotted a young American man teaching English to some Vietnamese on the first floor of a row house. I asked to join his class and became his student each weekend. My teacher, a Christian missionary named Jim, taught not only English conversation but also stories from the Holy Bible. One class discussion was about Jesus being “the way, the truth, and the life,” but as a Buddhist, I thought this explanation was too narrow.
Later in 1968, I received a U.S. government scholarship to study statistics at the University of Texas in Austin. That same year my teacher Jim was living in Texas and he introduced me to a church near my school. The people at the church were very friendly and the music was beautiful, but, as a Buddhist, I was not interested in the Christian teaching. During my last year at the university, I became engaged to Hong, a graduate student in business administration. After completing our degrees, we got married in Vietnam, in January 1972. Our son was born on December 30, 1972. We returned to the city of Dalat where I taught at the Military Academy, and my wife taught at a Catholic university.
An Unknown Future
Our lives were blissful and happy until March 30, 1975, when everything changed drastically because of the advance of the North Vietnamese army. My wife and son fled to Tay-ninh, while I went with the military to Saigon. A few days before April 30, I tried to bring my wife and son to Saigon, but I could not get through the Communists’ line. On that fateful morning, the South Vietnamese government fell to Communist troops. Desperate and afraid, I jumped on a boat to get out of Saigon and left behind my wife, son, and parents. In that moment I lost all that I had held proudly—my country, my homeland, my family. My emotions were numb. My thoughts were incoherent. My will was shattered. My body ended up among the throngs of Vietnamese refugees, first in the Philippines, next on Wake Island, and finally at Ft. Chaffee Refugee Camp in Fort Smith, Arkansas. At this point in my life, I had nothing to anchor my life to. My past accomplishments meant nothing; I was alone and facing an unknown future.
A Familiar Face
For almost three months in the camp I did not get a sponsor, even though I was a single man with an M.A. degree from an American university. I kept busy working as a volunteer in the camp office. One afternoon as I was walking back to my barracks, I approached a chapel on my right and saw an American man who looked familiar to me. When he saw me, he stretched out his hands and called my name, “Thuan!” I shouted back, calling his name, “Jim Gayle!” The name of my former teacher came to me, though I had not spoken it for six years!
Sitting in the office of the chapel, his first words to me were, “Thuan, I heard that you got married.” These words stabbed my heart because at that time, I had put my wedding ring in my wallet, resigned to be a single man again. But these words from my former teacher helped me put the ring back on my finger and dare to hope that some day I would be reunited with my wife.
Jim was working as a Vietnamese language interpreter in the refugee camp, and he offered to try to find a church to sponsor me as well as some scholarship money. To my amazement, two weeks later I was staying in the home of Pastor Bob Owens of Calvary Baptist Church and was accepted by Texas A&M University to work on a Ph.D. in statistics. The first Sunday I attended church and I responded to the altar call by the pastor. I wanted to show my gratitude to Jim and to the church that sponsored me out of the refugee camp by identifying myself as a Christian. So I, a Buddhist, was baptized and began living a nominal Christian life.
Peace at Last
After a month, I moved into a trailer the church rented for me. The first weeks of adjustment to life in the U.S. were very difficult. I went to school during weekdays and attended church on the weekends. The Bible studies, songs, and sermon messages created questions in my mind. In school I felt miserable. I considered quitting. I missed my family. I cried frequently. Both my pride and my soul were shaken.
One Saturday morning near the end of October, I was alone in the trailer. It was a little cold inside because the heaters were not turned on. I put on a suit coat to keep warm—a coat someone in the church had given me. I put my hand in the pocket and took out a booklet. It was “Steps to Peace with God” by Billy Graham. The peace talked about in the tract was what I longed for—a peace that only Jesus could give. As I read, I prayed that God would forgive my sin, and I invited Jesus Christ to be my Savior. From this moment, I truly felt like a new person.
New Names—Official and True
Instead of despair, I was filled with hope. In school I began to make better grades. I loved to study the Bible, and I began to understand it. Once I had heard in a sermon that new believers in Africa often change their names, and that was what I wanted to do. So I went to court and changed my Vietnamese name, Ly Cong Thuan, to Thomas Gayle Lyconthuan Lee. I took my teacher’s last name as one of my middle names and used the internationally spelled name Lee of my great-grandfather as my last name. This became my official name.
One summer while working as an intern at the Civil Service Commission in Washington, D.C., I got to worship with other Vietnamese Christians in a Vietnamese church. I began to understand that God was allowing many Vietnamese to come to the U.S. so they might learn about Him. When I returned to my home church in Texas, I asked to be re-baptized—this time as a true believer, and I began boldly sharing the Word of God with other Vietnamese.
Released and Reunited
Beginning in 1976, through friends in Canada and France, I began sending letters to my family in Vietnam and witnessing to them. Then in 1977, I received a letter from my father saying that my wife had been put in prison. The following year, my father passed away, and my mother sold their house in Saigon in hopes that she and my son could escape out of Vietnam by boat. They tried many times and finally succeeded in 1981. My wife remained in prison in spite of many efforts to get her release d. The n in M ay, 198 2, after almost five years, she w as released. I continued to request permission for her to com e to the U.S., but the Communist government would not grant it.
By 1983, I had lived in the U.S. long enough to apply for citizenship and was hire d by the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. M y so n and I moved to Maryland where I beg an encouraging Vietnamese churches in that area. In 19 85, I was ordained as pastor of the First Vietnamese Baptist Church in Lanham, Maryland. I also assisted the Honorable Robert Funeth, Assistant Secretary of State, in his negotiations with the Vietnamese government to bring Vietnamese children of America n soldiers to the U.S. an d to free South Vietnamese soldiers and religious leaders imprisoned in the Communist camps.
Then, wonder of wonders! On March 22, 1991, God answered the prayers of faithful Christians around the world for my wife’s release. After 16 years of separation, the Vietnamese government granted permission for my wife to leave Vietnam, and she was reunited with me and our son. By God’s grace she was able to adjust quickly to life in the U.S. and to assume her role of wife and mother to our son. She became an instant pastor’s wife and joined me in ministry.
God is faithful, and His plan for each life is perfect! He had His hand on my life from my mother’s womb. He changed my destiny from being a Buddhist without assurance and hope in this life or the next, to being a child of God with full confidence and peace. Thanks to the love, care, and prayers of many faithful servants in Vietnam and the U.S., God has given my wife, son, mother, sisters and me eternal life in Him. With God’s grace and love, I now enjoy life fully and know for sure that I am His forever.