My dear family, friends, brothers and sisters, aloha!
This is a unique perspective and a memorable time in which I am speaking to you today. I’m actually quite enjoying it so far because there is nobody in the Cannon Activities Center with thousand faces looking at me. But more importantly, I am grateful for devotional today because it brings back some normalcy and continuity to our schedules. Because BYU–Hawaii has always had devotionals, along with the other church-owned universities and they are always at the same time and at the same place, so I am happy to be with you all today. So President, thank you for this opportunity.
As I look out today, I may not physically see you due to BYU–Hawaii’s recent decision to stream devotionals in the short-term instead of physically gathering in the Cannon Activities Center due to the preventive measures in response to the Coronavirus. But I know that you are watching this devotional online all across campus and from other places around the world. So I would like to greet you again with a warm aloha and hope that you will respond with a loud “aloha” back this time wherever you are.
So family, friends, brothers and sisters, aloha!
In some ways, streaming this broadcasts makes it a little more intimate. So I would like to speak to you as if we were talking face to face. Even though I cannot see your faces right now, I feel that I have grown very close to you, my BYU–Hawaii Ohana (especially given the recent events). I feel the support and love of our university and our community, I have grown very close to you my students, especially since our university, like many others, have taken classes on-line, which means I will not be able to be physically present with you in class and I know I’ll miss seeing your faces every day in the classroom. I have grown very close to you my fellow colleagues who I have been working with during the last 12 years, and of course my own family and friends.
These natural interactions with people who I see regularly have taken a whole new meaning and have made me evermore grateful for each and every one of you. Because I feel so close to you, I would like to tell you a little bit about my story. In the end, you will see in this story themes of redemption and the importance of following the Spirit. Please pardon me as my story is very personal, and I appreciate you giving your time to allow me to share it with you.
As briefly mentioned in my introduction, I am ethnic Chinese and born in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. My mother and I escaped Vietnam as boat people in 1979 when I was six years old, four years after the Fall of Saigon where Communist North Vietnam took over South Vietnam.
We lived in former Saigon, currently Ho Chi Minh City, which is in South Vietnam. When Saigon actually fell to communist rule, the whole city turned upside-down. Those who worked for the South Vietnamese government or connected to the U.S. Embassy were among the first to be taken out and so many people were running to the U.S. Embassy. Many of those fortunate enough to leave with the US Military fled by helicopter and planes. Those of us who were left behind were not so lucky for we had to escape by boat.
My grandpa at the time had a gold business and a fish sauce company. He was ultimately arrested and had almost all his possessions confiscated except for the small amount of gold he hid in various places. Many of my family members including my two close uncles were taken to a re-education camp.
For those of us who stayed behind after the war, the decision to either continue to stay under communist rule or risk our lives by escaping was a serious question. When my mother was asked if she was afraid to leave on a small boat to travel across the sea to another country, she replied, “Truly I was not afraid because freedom is more valuable in my life, so I rather live free.”
With these words echoing in her mind, my mother and I tried to escape two times. On the first time, we were cheated by dishonest boat captains who took what little gold and other precious things we had for passage.
My mother tells the story this way:
“We were disguised like farmers and took a bus out to the countryside by the ocean as if we were going to work. The boat captains would call you when the boats were ready and the children would all be given sleeping medicine to eat. Usually this would take place on a moonless night.
So they took us to walk towards the beach. And they said, okay, now you will stay behind these rocks and you wait for us. So supposedly they would put us into these smaller boats and row us out to the bigger boats. But there weren't any bigger boats.
So we got arrested by the Communist soldiers. At first they shines their flashlights and said don't move or you'll be shot. So we all got rounded up to this large open area.After we were taken to the camp, the men and women were separated.
Females were housed indoors in an old cement warehouse structure and the men were locked up inside of these metal containers, (similar to today's shipping containers) without any air. It was absolutely horrible. The females and children slept on the cement floors."
Now, I was with my mother at this time. I was 5 years old. I got sick with an eye infection and it was all swollen up. Due to my sickness, my mother and I were eventually released. We were in the middle of nowhere in rural Vietnam and no doctor, nothing. And so we were taken to a place where we could get a bus and told to leave.The second attempt to escape occurred a little over a year after this incident.
First, we could not carry anything with us because these fishing boats couldn't carry anything but people. The capacity of these boats was a hundred, but they would try to cram more than 200 people in each one because they wanted to make more profit since the passengers needed to pay some kind of passage fee (usually with precious metals, like gold and silver). Our particular boat had 200 plus passengers, so we were crammed in like sardines with no place to move.
Here is the actual picture of our boat in 1979 before the passengers got on-board. My mom had heard that there was going to be a couple more boats going about the same time as ours. But as it turned out, our boat was the only one who made it. The other ones all sunk. There were simply too many people. So before they even set sail, they all drowned.
Since our boat only had a capacity for one hundred and they stuffed more than 200 people, it was extremely heavily loaded. We were also forbidden to bring anything with us, only the clothes that we could wear. So my mother and I and others wore three or four pairs of clothing. We were on this boat for 96 hours or 4 days.
The boat had a top deck and a lower deck. The females and the kids were in the lower deck and the men were on top. Where we were on the lower deck, the smell of vomit filled the air in the tight space as we all sat crammed next to each other because there literally was no room to even sit up. The only food my mom remembers eating was jicama, which is a vegetable, because jicama has a lot of water and it can make you feel full.
Since there was no bathroom, we used metal cans with a little hole in them. So the men upstairs would us so the men upstairs would use a rope of string, tie this can and hand it down to us, and we would use it and then they would carry up the waste to discard.
On one particular night, the captain announced that we were going to be facing a big storm with large waves with heavy rain and wind. And certainly that night the ocean was angry with waves, rain, and wind rocking our small boat for hours on end. Everybody was terrified, but we were very lucky because the captain of our boat, being a very good sailor, navigated the boat in between two islands. Then he dropped the anchor.
When we woke up the next morning, the storm was over and we saw land for the first time. It was very early in the morning and it was low tide. So the younger men swam to the land and made contact once they arrived. We discovered that we had landed in Indonesia.
The police took no notice of us and they already knew we were refugees because by that time news of the Vietnamese boat people had made headlines around the world. We stayed in a refugee camp with thousands of other Vietnamese boat people for over 5 months.
Eventually, we were sponsored by my uncle who lived in California and my mother and I, along with my 3 cousins, my uncles and aunties who were all on that same boat with me ended up in Long Beach, California and eventually settling in Westminster, California—which has one of the largest Vietnamese populations outside of Vietnam. If you go visit Westminster today, it is nicknamed “Little Saigon.”
In hindsight, we were very lucky. I have other family members, one of whom lives right here in Honolulu and is actually sitting in this audience today, who were not as fortunate and their loved ones drowned in the open ocean.
When we arrived to California, my mom was a single mother who worked hard to support me. Though my aunt and uncle helped, I was often left alone. My father had been arrested by the Vietnamese communist after the war and was in prison when my mother and I escaped. They were later divorced. I was raised with my 3 cousins (2 older and 1 younger) who all came over with me from Vietnam to the United States. Here is a picture of the 4 of us.
Can you guess which one I am? I know. It’s hard. You know what they say? All Asians look the same yeah!
We spent all day in the streets hanging out and trying to fit in. It was very different from our home country and often times we got into trouble: the cultures in our neighborhood didn’t always mix together well and often times got into fights. In the 1980s and 1990s, my neighborhood of Long Beach and Santa Ana and its surrounding areas were well known for gangs and violence.
A recent PBS special called “Freedom Writers: Stories from the Heart” which was later made into a movie depicts the serious problems of gang warfare among the Southeast Asian, Mexican, and African-American gangs of the Long Beach, California area. I was raised in that setting, and although I was never officially “jumped in” or initiated as a gang member, almost all my friends and 2 out of the 3 cousins were affiliated with gangs.
But because of these influences, in time, I started to get into serious trouble and was sent to several reform schools. One of the reform schools took me all the way from California to Utah. Over a period of 2 years, I was finally released from all the reform schools (mostly because my mom’s insurance no longer covered it). I felt that people had given up on me.
I roamed around for a while and finally ended up back in Utah because of the connections I had made there. Over a period of time, I ended up living a life headed for ABSOLUTE disaster. I found myself waking up one morning in a VW bus in a junkyard. Poor decision after decision brought me to the point of being homeless and living a life I was not proud of.
One very cold night, I found myself kneeling in prayer for the very first time in my life and asking if somebody could help me. This was my first-ever uttered prayer. There came into my mind the thought to go see my former therapist, Chris Wallace. His advice was simple: “Go get a job.” So I did.
Earlier another person had come into my life: Nancy Gibson. Nancy had been my recreational therapist at a reform school in California before I met Chris. I was shocked because at our first meeting when she opened your mouth, she spoke Cantonese! (the Chinese dialect I grew up speaking)
I then learned that she had served a mission in Hong Kong! Now I didn’t know much about missions or God or religion back then. I had not been raised in a religious setting. But Nancy’s kindness had a big impact on me.
It turns out that Nancy had relocated to Utah from California for work and when she found out I was in Utah, she brought me a blanket and took me to get some Chinese food one night when I was living in that abandoned bus. In fact, she was the one who, after hearing how tough things were going for me, told me to pray to God and ask for help. Without her suggestion, I would have probably never called for help on that cold, lonely night. But she did teach me to pray and I did call out to God. And I did have that thought come into my mind to go see Chris. And I did go and get a job.
Now it wasn’t a great job and things didn’t get better right away. I was still living on the streets, but I would go to see Chris Wallace and sometimes got to spend time in the Wallace home. A few months later Chris and Debbie called my mom. They explained to her that they had felt prompted to take me into their home to live with them and their 6 small children, one boy and 5 girls. Here is a picture of the Wallace family at that time.
In thinking back to that time, I am amazed that this family with a boy who was 9 and 5 young girls ranging from 8 years to 6 months old would take me into their own home. What a risk they were taking! But that is what they did. And I am eternally grateful. This was the first time I ever experienced such a close and loving family.
I remember coming home tired and hungry and Debbie making grilled-cheese sandwiches for me (I don’t know why the grilled-cheese sandwiches stood out to me but somehow those just tasted so good!).
I saw a family that sat down for family dinner regularly. Around the table, the parents and children talked so naturally and seemed so close. I saw Chris and Debbie both helping their children with their nightly homework assignments. I saw the parents working out the everyday problems of family life with their children. I was completely blown away.
Because I had been out of school for a while, they helped me get back into school. I still remember Chris taking me to see the principal of the local high school and he said that I had to take a half credit of English and a half credit of Math from a night school in order to get back into regular school. So, Debbie would take me to the night school and I earned my way back to taking classes again.
Eventually, I started to go to church with them. On Christmas day of 1989, the Wallace children decided to give me a Book of Mormon as a gift. I began meeting with the missionaries. I still remember reading the book and although I did not understand everything at that time, I kept on reading because the missionaries said that I could pray and ask God if it was true.
One night I finished reading Moroni’s promise:
“And when ye shall receive these things (meaning the words in the Book of Mormon), I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (Moroni 10:4).
I decided right there and then to kneel down and ask God if the book was true. I still remember that night like it was yesterday. I slept on the lower bunk of the bed and Christopher, the Wallace’s son, slept on the top bunk.
I put the Book of Mormon down and knelt along the bedside and offered a very simple but sincere prayer:
“Heavenly Father, is this book true because if it is, then I want to join this church. If it isn’t, then I don’t want to join it.”
I closed my prayer and …nothing happened! I remember very distinctly thinking, “I will pray again tomorrow and ask again if it is true.” As soon as I thought this, I felt a very strong burning in my heart that spread throughout my entire body, from the tips of my fingers to my toes, I could not deny that power radiating throughout my body. I had never felt anything like that before. I knew it was God’s answer.
The next day, I called the missionaries and a week later, I was baptized. I was 16 years old. On the day of my baptism, my mother and my stepdad (my mom had remarried years earlier to a wonderful man, Larry Latham) both flew up to see me and to attend my baptism. I said to my mother, in Cantonese... which means Mom, can you please forgive me.
My mother replied, “Look at all these people who have come here to celebrate your change, how can I as your own mother, not forgive you.” The day after I was baptized, I flew back to California with my parents. On my first Sunday back, all of a sudden this guy appears at my door! It was Brian Andre, the young men’s president from Santa Ana 1st ward coming to take me to church! From this moment on everything changed for me.
There was Pat and Lloyd, two young men my age who were also looking for a change in their lives and we became very close. We clung on to each other and did everything together. Then there was our Bishop, Rich Gerdtz (who we lovingly called Bish, even to this day). He took us rascals under his wing and believed in us.
Then there was Kevin and Teresa Kimball, a young married couple in the ward who would have us over for Family Home Evening almost every single week. Largely because of their influence and the love and support of the whole Santa Ana 1st ward At age 19, I choose to go on a mission.
I served for 2 years in the inner cities of Washington DC and Baltimore, Maryland where I was able to help many others who like me had been lost. When I returned home, Chris Wallace invited me to work for The Anazazi Foundation (a Wilderness survival program for troubled teens) located in Arizona (where the Wallaces had relocated). He thought that I could probably relate to them pretty well and I knew that I could.
After working there, I attended Mesa Community College for a couple semesters where I met a girl named Rena Bunker. The first time we met we talked for almost two hours! She had this glow about her and knew I was hooked. And what was surprising to me was that later she told me the same thing! That there was a glow about me and that she thought I had been in the church all my life!
My ancestors were the ones pulling the all you can eat Chinese buffet carts behind Brigham Young on the Mormon trial.
A few months later we were sealed for time and all eternity in the Mesa, AZ temple and the rest is history. Brothers and Sisters, can you clearly see in MY story the themes of redemption and choosing to follow the Spirit? What would have happened if my mother had not made that decision to leave Vietnam despite such great risk?
Even after almost four decades, I can still hear my mother’s words echoing in my mind: "Truly I was not afraid because freedom is more valuable in my life, so I rather live free."
And then in 2016, 37 years after our escape, we saw things come full circle as my oldest son, Kai travelled to Vietnam as one of the first group of missionaries called to serve in the newly formed Hanoi, Vietnam mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when it was officially recognized on May 31st of that year. Brothers and Sisters, do you not see redemption here?
Vietnam was once a place where the church was taken away because of war and oppression is now a place where there are currently 53 full-time missionaries serving and where President Nelson, our dear Prophet, just visited in November 17th, 2019. It is amazing to me to see the good changes happening in Vietnam over these years and how the church is growing there. And my own son got to be a part of it.
Now moving onto the rest of the story.
Can you imagine what would have happened if Chris and Debbie had not chosen to follow that voice? To take that leap of faith and take me into their home even when they had little children and I was not in a good place?
But God knew, and He used the Wallace family. And He saved me. And what about Nancy? What if Nancy had not followed the prompting to visit me with a blanket? Take me to get Chinese food? To encourage to pray? Nancy had other things she could have been doing! She didn’t know what affect her simple service would have on me! But God knew and He used Nancy. And He saved me.
Brothers and Sisters, Be Chris and Debbie Wallace, be Nancy Gibson. Follow that still small voice. Reach out to others to minister to them. It has made all the difference for me. Ultimately, it is the Savior, Jesus Christ who has redeemed me. I am so eternally indebted to Him and to THEM who followed the Spirit to be instruments in His hands.
All of these experiences and following that inner voice to reach out to others have guided and changed my entire life. When I was baptized, I invited a friend who was in the same reform school with me to attend. After I was baptized and confirmed a member of the church I walked up to him and said, “So Aaron did you feel something good at my baptism today?” Aaron responded, “Yes I did.”
Excited about the gospel and this new-found faith in my life, I exclaimed “That feeling you’re feeling—it’s the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the truthfulness of this church. Aaron, you have got to call the missionaries and learn more about this church.” Aaron eventually took the missionary discussions and got baptized. Since then, he has served a mission, married in the temple, and is currently serving in the high council in his home town.
As mentioned earlier, my opportunity to serve in the inner city of Washington DC and Baltimore as a missionary where I tried very hard to follow the spirit every day of my life was a valuable experience for me, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything. I remember coming home distraught one winter evening after attempting to teach a woman about Jesus Christ. Her doubts of His existence shook me. I remember huddling close to the stove that we used for warmth in our tiny apartment and reading the entire Gospel of John from the New Testament.
When I was done a warm feeling came over me and I knew that He was real. That he really did sacrifice Himself on the cross for me. Because He loved me, I was redeemed myself. I was found. When I returned home, I taught about redemption and change to those struggling teenagers at the Wilderness Survival program.
I personally saw many young people begin their own redemption stories. And finally, just last March, almost exactly one year ago from today, I was released from serving as a Bishop of the Hauula 2nd ward. There, I had opportunities along with my two counselors to witness people responding to the Spirit and reaching out to help others.
We have witnessed many people turning to Christ for strength to change. I love these two great men, both of whom have their own redemption stories to tell.
Today I’m speaking to you as a BYU–Hawaii professor. Today, I am blessed with a good family. Today, the gospel is deeply rooted in my life. Today, I look back and recognize the hand of God in my life. Brothers and Sisters, I believe in change. I am a living proof that the atonement of Jesus Christ is real and can help us change. I am so grateful for that critical moment when I made the conscious choice to pray to God for help and to know if the Book of Mormon was true.
The answers I received and acted upon have made ALL THE DIFFERENCE in my life. Brother and sisters, I am convinced that because of the Savior Jesus Christ we can ALL be redeemed. And once we have been redeemed, God will use us to help others be redeemed too. My dear family and friends, my whole life story can be summarized in this simple sentence:
God has redeemed me, He has redeemed others, AND He will, if you turn to Him, redeem YOU.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.