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Kingdom thugs

Two Tai Dam men, both of whom immigrated to this country as refugees after the Vietnam War, are grocery shopping. Seriously—this happened. Both of them have a cart out front of them, and they’re looking for whatever—think Wheaties maybe.

They look up at each other. It’s not extraordinary to run across other Tai Dam people in Sioux City, Iowa. Local meat packers employ hundreds of southeast Asian refugees. But these guys can’t help but take a second look because they can’t help feeling they know each other somehow.

They do. And when they’re close, they approach, hesitant, and admit as much, both of them.

The thing is, they weren’t necessarily friends, not friends at all. Both made a good living in Laos on the black market, dealing in goods and arms left behind or stolen from American military forces. At that game, they were rivals; in war-torn southeast Asia, people who played the black market played hardball. These guys were tough guys.

I knew all of that because I’d interviewed both of them, at length, through a translator. Strangely enough, both had to come to the point of accepting the Christian faith other Tai Dam had been touting, and I was doing a book about local refugees who’d been somehow, often miraculously, begun believing in Jesus.

And I’d asked tough questions, asked them to explain exactly what they had done in Laos, in the same way any of us might ask someone else a similar question, “So, back home, what did you do?”

That question dragged me into the neighborhood of violence, gang warfare in jungle country desolated by war. Wasn’t pretty—that much I knew. Don’t get me wrong—these guys weren’t bragging about their sins as some testimonies do. That they weren’t guilty was maybe most harrowing part of the what I was hearing. Whatever ugliness they’d done in Laos was simply what each of them did for themselves and their families to survive.

Both had become leaders in their church. Once upon a time they were warlords, in some serious competition with each other. In Laos, they hadn’t been friends, but now they were, the two of them pushing grocery carts, meeting thousands of miles away in Sioux City, Iowa, U. S. of A.

The one who told me the story still shook his head when the memory surfaced. Once upon a time, they might have killed each other—these were tough hombres—but now they were brothers in Christ.

I may well have been the only person in church one Sunday sometime later, who knew their stories because I think I’m the only person who spent hours with both of them, who pushed and pushed until I found out what I thought I needed to know to tell their stories as best I could.

And there they were, up in front, directed by the pastor to separate aisles of the church, where they handed out first the bread and then the wine.

I don’t know that in my life I have ever experienced a more incredible sacrament because I knew, as most congregants didn’t, that I was being offered the body and blood of our Lord by a couple of thugs who once upon a time were a whole lot worse than petty criminals.

And I couldn’t help thinking right then, how others in church that Sunday might be just as blessed as I was if they knew too what an incredible thing was happening, all because another even more incredible thing already had: God almighty laid claim on his own.

Last Sunday in this space, Chad Pierce told us he was surprised that some who read Jim Vanden Bosch’s piece about the Prison Initiative at Calvin were not as joyous as Pierce was. Some were downright skeptical and said as much, in the bare—knuckled fashion social media makes possible.

I didn’t see or smell the trash talk, but I’m enough of a Calvinist to say landfills aren’t particularly shocking.

But when I read Chad Pierce’s post, I couldn’t help think of that Sunday afternoon combined worship, a local church and its southeast Asian sibling in Sioux City, when two black marketeers who’d met in a grocery store aisle–just make it cold meats–looked at each other like a pair of quarrelsome cats and then learned to love each other as brothers. That Sunday, I listened to the Lord’s command to take and eat and drink a supper served up by a couple of redeemed thugs.

That meal ranks–I’m serious–as one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh my, gives me joy.

  • Allan Janssen says:

    Reconciliation/atonement — at the heart of the Belhar Confession. Thank you for this.

  • Gloria Stronks says:

    Jim, that is a beautiful story. And you have been given the gift to tell such stories in a way that means so much to many of us.

  • Marilyn Van Driesen says:

    My heart is touched, as it has been by so many of your stories.

  • Walt Ackerman says:

    As a person who, while in the Army, spent many a day in Laos, I can testify to the toughness of these men. They were not worried about the American soldiers and did just about anything to get our weapons, shells and grenades to sell. And Yes they were mean as well. It is always exciting to me when I read stories like this about Laos people and people from Viet Nam who have accepted Christ and moved on with their lives as Christians. After seven months of being shot at by them, at first it was hard to accept that God was doing this in their hearts. But God did some things in my heart to say these people are my people just like you are. Thanks for the reminder again.

  • Anne says:

    Do the crimes they committed go unpunished when they accept Christ? I understand they are changed. And so are we by their story. I don’t know the answer to the question. Just wonder and am concerned that redemption seems to be equated with a blank slate wiped clean without penance and justice.

  • James Schaap says:

    That’s a question for a theologian, I guess. I don’t think any of us ever get a blank slate, although in the case of these men there is or was no government, finally, to dispense justice. I don’t think we ever stand outside the law, do we? A man or woman who commits murder, then finds Christ, isn’t released from the penalty of law. In this case, as I said, there really was no law, no justice system in operation at all. It would be interesting to know what Walt Ackerman might answer to your question.

  • Al Schipper says:

    Thank you Jim. In my ministry I’ve come to love these “stories that shimmer”. They seem to display the Good News so profoundly and so completely that they are breath taking. Defying simple description many saints are slow to share, choosing their audiences carefully or not at all to preserve the majesty of the experience. And this one is truly majestic. Thanks again.

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