By Gary Cook
Thai Le Nugyen is my first really good friend who is Vietnamese, and she is my first really good friend who is Catholic in her faith. I had an uncle who married a young Pennsylvania Dutch woman. That she was a devout Catholic was an eye-opening experience for my thoroughly Baptist family. My uncle had not embraced any faith prior to this marriage. Subsequent to the marriage he embraced the faith of his wife and this good man over a period of time became a true man of faith. My deep-water Baptist father said out of the blue one day, there was not a doubt in his mind that my Uncle Glen and my Aunt Lois were true followers of Christ.
I was very fortunate to have parents who were thoughtful as well as faithful. Still, if I am really honest, lurking in the shadows of my mind there was likely a lingering question: is it possible that a Catholic could teach me something about matters of faith? Thai Le forever answered that question for me.
Thai Le cuts my hair and makes my wife, Linda, look even more beautiful than she normally is. We have visited Thai Le at least once a month for the past seven years, and she has become our dear friend. At some point we began to occasionally talk about religion and faith during our visits. I had told Thai Le that I was a Baptist minister, and she was genuinely interested in what that looked like.
A couple of years into our friendship I was called as the “permanent, part-time” pastor of Gaston Oaks Baptist Church in Dallas. Our church is an older congregation with an average age of 83 and it is filled every Sunday with young families, children and teens. They are spread across our building in four other congregations. These other congregations are comprised of Africans, Bhutanese, Hispanics and Karens. They each have their own worship space and their own pastor. I meet with the pastors once a month and several times a year we have a combined worship service of all five congregations. Early in the experience I realized I needed some tutoring on how to work more effectively with these wonderful people, the majority of whom are refugees.
Thai Le, at the age of 12, and her family were refugees when they arrived in Dallas. They faced all the challenges that refugees face in learning a new language and adjusting to a different culture. Now, some 40 years later, Thai Le and her husband are both college educated, have become quite successful in their businesses and they have raised four very bright and accomplished children.
So Thai Le became my teacher about all things refugee. About a year ago I began to mention the possibility of Thai Le coming to our church and telling her story to a combined service of all five congregations. At first she was very hesitant, but over the next two or three months she began to consider it more positively and finally she agreed.
The day she came our worship center was full. Children and teens packed the front pews and listened with rapt attention to Thai Le, who is a naturally effective speaker, tell her amazing story. It was one of the best moments I have ever experienced as a pastor.
Recently, Thai Le told us a very touching story about the night her father died. She said, “Our entire family was there except for one grandson who had to fly in from college. Daddy was desperately trying to hold on until his grandson arrived. He had been telling us at various times, ‘Ttake care of your mother and stay true to our Catholic faith.’
“At one point Daddy was talking and we asked him if he was seeing God. He said, ‘Not yet but I see Mother Mary and she is beautiful and she is wearing a blue cape and with the stars on it.’ Later when his grandson arrived, we told Daddy he was there and Daddy motioned that he wanted to sit up in bed. He then said one word, ‘Champagne.’ We knew immediately what he meant. In our family champagne always meant a celebration like at Christmas or Easter. So we got a bottle of champagne and poured a few drops on a cotton ball and placed it on his tongue. Then he lay back down and died.”
I immediately thought of and told Thai Le a Cook family story about the night my grandfather died in 1928. All of the family was gathered around. He told each of his nine children the same thing, “Stay true to the Lord and help your mother to do so.” Two of my aunts said, “After our time with Daddy we went outside and sat in our car to wait.” My Aunt Bernice said, “When I saw Jesus I knew my Daddy had died.”
Thai Le had just finished cutting my hair and I turned in the chair to face her. There were big smiles on our faces and there were tears spilling over the smiles as we realized how similar the story of a Vietnamese Catholic girl was to a Baptist boy from the southern United States. Just for a moment this teetotaling Baptist preacher wished he had a small bottle of champagne, like those on airliners, and a piece of bread in his pocket. I doubt if my Catholic friend nor my slightly-more-conservative-than-me wife would have joined me, but I think it would have been right for that moment.