I started attending Calvary Presbyterian church, perched atop one of the steepest hills in leafy Pacific Heights, San Francisco a decade ago. I was pulled in by the one-block proximity to my apartment and the inspiring sermons from Dr. Laird Stuart. Several years ago, while feeling a bit lost after life threw a few curveballs my way, I decided to go deeper and joined the Young Adult bible study group. After my first few sessions, I realized I lacked the background that most everyone else had – knowledge of the bible. Knowing this would be apparent soon enough, I opened up to the group about my ignorance. “I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I’ve never read the bible.”
As the lone Christian in a Buddhist family, I did not grow up going to church. My path to being Christian was accidental. When I was three years old, my family decided it was time to leave Vietnam. My mom made a deal that sealed my fate in exchange for our safe passage out of the country. We missed our chance to leave when most of my mom’s family was evacuated by American troops in 1975. Her brothers served as translators for the American army in Vietnam, which made her family part of a small and fortunate group to be airlifted out. My mom was four months pregnant with me at the time Saigon fell, and felt the journey would be too risky, so we stayed.
Three years later, my parents sensed that time was running out and we should plan our escape. My dad was a lawyer and politician in the South Vietnamese government before Saigon fell. It was a small miracle he hadn’t already been detained and sent to reeducation camp. The day before we fled Saigon, my Catholic nanny suggested that my mom visit the Catholic church and ask the nuns to pray for our family. We had a perilous journey ahead of us. If we were caught trying to leave communist Vietnam, the punishment would be serious. And if we were able to escape the borders of Vietnam, there was still plenty that could go wrong at sea. My family is Buddhist, as most Vietnamese families are, but my mom is a very practical woman. She figured we might as well get as many people (or Gods) on our side as possible. She went to the church and not only did she ask for prayers, she struck a deal with the nuns. If our entire family made it to the U.S. safely, my parents would have their youngest child baptized into the Catholic religion.
After a long and precipitous journey that spanned over a year, split up my parents, had us captured by pirates at sea, and had several of us flirting with death, I was finally baptized in a little church in L.A. once my dad made it over and our family was reunited.
This song’s title by my favorite Irish songstress, Lisa Hannigan, sums up the Vietnamese refugee escape experience — “Safe Travels (Don’t Die)”