Even though I was a carefree, eight-year-old girl, I could sense the somber mood in the back of the truck as our family huddled together, preparing to cross the Mekong River to escape Vientiane, Laos. My parents had instructed us not to tell anyone that we were “moving.” My mom was crying.
After fleeing Laos, we stayed in a refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, for several months until Iowa opened its doors to Southeast Asian refugees, who were mostly Tai Dam.
The communists had taken over the country, marking the end of a decades-long civil war (1953-1975). My father had served in the military and cooperated with the U.S. to fight against communism. When the U.S. pulled out of the war, freedom fighters like my father were left hanging. Even though I thought we were just moving, in reality my father was escaping communism and seeking refuge for his family.
We landed in Des Moines, Iowa, where we attended a Baptist church with our sponsor. There we were shepherded by a pastor from Laos. Later on my parents learned that First Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines held Tai Dam services, so we started attending. My parents joined the Tai Dam service while we children went to regular children’s Sunday school classes.
I never felt as if I fit in. My clothes were not as nice as the other kids’, and I felt they were making fun of me. Going to church was awkward. Eventually my parents stopped going, but they continued to force us kids to go. We got “smart” and started to wave the church van driver on, gesturing that we were not going. When our parents questioned us, we would tell them that we had missed our ride.
During the school day Helen Page, a retired teacher, worked with me on reading skills and we became close. She exposed my siblings and me to an American childhood by taking us to a circus and eating at McDonalds. When she learned that we did laundry by hand, she gave us her washing machine and dryer. She took us to church with her whenever possible.
As a middle schooler, I returned to Wednesday night church for social reasons. During this time First Church implemented an “adopt-a-grandchild” program where a “grandparent” was paired with a child. My peers’ grandparents would take them to fun places while my “grandmother” picked me up in her very cool, classic car to interpret for a family that she sponsored. I would visit the family’s home and go to their medical appointments with them. Although I didn’t get to do “fun” stuff like other kids, I enjoyed being helpful to the family.
Even though my church attendance had been sporadic, God grabbed hold of my heart. I knew and believed that He existed. I held on to honoring God even when my father called us to his ancestors’ altar to pay our respects during a Lunar New Year. I remember being very angry and locking myself in my bedroom, resisting with all my might participation in such a thing.
I slipped away from church when I went to high school and college. Although I was not a practicing Christian, Psalm 23 somehow comforted me during my college years. To avoid my studies or when I couldn’t get to sleep right away, I would read the small New Testament that was handed out by a Christian group on campus. A college friend who became a believer gave me a Bible. She sometimes invited me to a Bible study, but I had an excuse every time.
God was slowly taking hold of my heart, and He was also working in my father’s heart. Our family practiced ancestor worship. Everything in our culture was centered around being good and saving face for your family’s sake. My parents worked hard to raise children as well as care for a great uncle on minimum wage salaries. In fact my father would later pride himself on being able to support his family without public assistance.
Having a boy to continue the family lineage was something my father longed for. I happened to be the third of three girls. When my birth was announced to my dad, who was gambling at the time, he said to put me in a bag and throw me in the river. Being a very sarcastic person, he was most likely teasing, but my mother and grandmother were so hurt by his words that they retold the story over and over. My father also had a strange way of disciplining. His scare tactic to quiet a crying, strong-willed child who didn’t get her way was to dunk me upside down in a big barrel full of water. Yet this same man would, years later, pray for my salvation. This is a testament to the Word of God.
I used to be angry when I would think about my father’s reaction to my birth even though I have no recollection of the event. Nonetheless, through Christ, my sins were forgiven even though I am the least deserving person. When God’s grace flowed through me, my anger about the situation left me. I no longer had room for bitterness for my dad. (After having five girls, my dad’s sixth child was a boy; his dream had come to pass!)
In 1996 the Tai Dam group that met at First Church had secured their own building and become affiliated as its own church, Asian Church of the Open Bible (now called Lifesong Church of the Open Bible). My father was among its new members. He accepted Christ and immediately began praying for all of his children to come to know the Lord. About a year later with two young children, I gave church a try. I was not a regular attender at first, but as time went by I became fascinated by and loved the Word of God. When I accepted Christ, I started to pray earnestly for my husband, Nib, who became a believer as well.
I remember a sense of joy when I interpreted for guest speakers. I took an interest in reading the Lao Bible (even though I had only a second grade education in the Lao language) to keep abreast on formal biblical terminologies. Inste Global Bible College prepared me and introduced me to preaching. As I became more obedient, God opened more opportunities for me to serve at Lifesong. I assisted in recording radio programs in the Tai Dam language and coordinated the recording of the dubbing for the Jesus film, also in the Tai Dam language. (See picture below.)
When asked to preach, I never thought about preaching as a calling. God simply gave me a special joy and a sense of understanding His Word. I thought I was just stepping in to help out. It was the “right thing” to do after all. Every time I was introduced as an assistant pastor, I was tickled by the notion but again brushed it off as just “helping out.” I didn’t feel qualified. I didn’t feel like I had the ability to relate to people. My life was not that exciting; it was as normal as could be. I didn’t have “problems,” so I wouldn’t know how to help or comfort someone with problems. I was okay with being a full-time high school mathematics teacher and helping out with ministry occasionally.
When a friend from the congregation asked if I had ever thought of being a pastor, I laughed and responded that I hadn’t thought that far. Besides, being a woman pastor did not seem desirable because I felt like we live in a man’s world. A month or two later, our church board members contacted our regional office asking for help in searching for a new pastor because our current pastor, Mike Rasavanh, was transitioning into overseas missions (see page 28).
Pastor Mike then stopped me in my tracks and asked me to consider the position, and he recommended me to the board. I was fearful, knowing that God judges leaders more strictly (James 3:1). I didn’t want to mess up. I also knew that some people scrutinize leaders; no one can do well enough to satisfy them. I talked to my husband and three children, seeking their thoughts. I made it clear that it would not be only me in ministry, it would be us. My husband was a key supporter for my decision, and in 2016 I accepted the pastorate of Lifesong Church of the Open Bible.
As an assistant pastor, I had wondered if it was proper for women to be in a leadership position, but I did not let it bother me because I was only “helping out.” The insecurity of being a woman leader settled in more prominently when the idea of becoming a pastor grew closer to reality. I had read many examples of women in leadership in the Bible, but that did not prevent the doubt from kicking in. Thankfully, I was blessed to be surrounded by people who value women in leadership and helped me work toward being what I can be in God’s hands and according to God’s standard.
I consider myself new to ministry, having pastored Lifesong for only three years. Insecurity is my main obstacle as a woman in leadership. I am my worst enemy. I analyze people’s comments to see if they are sincere, sarcastic, or just something to say. I question whether my decisions are a “God thing” or a “me thing.” I asked God multiple times to remove me from the position if a woman is not supposed to be in a leadership position. Instead God continues to show me favor. He places people in my path to encourage and love me.
Some may have doubted my ability to persevere, especially since I’ve been battling cancer on and off since 2012. God has always provided by allowing my work schedule to flow smoothly with my medical schedule. He gave me a loving family, friends, and coworkers who commit their time and finances to ease the load. I’ve learned to be thankful for and reliant on a network of prayers. My sickness is never a hindrance; rather it has been a source of strength. “His grace is sufficient” (2 Corinthians 12:9) and “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) are two daily reminders from the almighty God.
In 1 Corinthians 15:10, the Apostle Paul stated,
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect.”
His grace to me began in my mother’s womb. He set me apart for His work, not by my doing but by His grace to me and in me.
About the Author
Somkong (Kong) Vong has been a math teacher at East High School in Des Moines, Iowa, for 21 years. She served as an assistant pastor of Lifesong Church of the Open Bible, also in Des Moines, for ten years prior to becoming the church’s senior pastor. Kong and her husband, Nib, have three children, Jasmine, Melanie, and Kenny, and one grandson, Noah.
*Kong’s journey to the United States was featured in the book Zakery’s Bridge: Children’s Journeys from Around the World to Iowa, by Kay Fenton Smith and Carol Roh Spaulding.