Keo Phommarath met his wife, Bounchan, at a party. At first, he says, she seemed to him nothing more or less than another woman in an endless string of women.
She was Thai, not Lao like he was, but something else about her attracted him. A few dates later she told him about her life: how she’d been married to an American soldier, how she’d come to America for him, and how she’d been abandoned. She was alone, and there was nothing to go back to: her mother had died in Thailand.
Even today, when Bounchan tells her story, she dabs at tears. “My life was terrible,” she says. That’s all.
The story broke Keo down. “When she told me everything,” he remembers, “I cried inside my own heart.”
Keo Phommarath was also alone and had been ever since his brother left him on the banks of the Mekong River. “I’m going back,” his brother told him that night, in the middle of danger. “You must go.” Keo was 13.
He went through rough times in refugee camps, dealing with his pain by indulging in an orgy of excesses: parties, sex, booze, drugs—all of that helped him forget home. When his partying ruined the family business of the good Thai folks who’d taken him in, he got booted. Once more, he was alone.
A year later, in 1980, he left for America, alone. His sponsors got him a job in a chicken processing plant in Maryland City, Md. He was making the money he wanted, but he was alone.
Keo migrated to Grand Island, Neb. Surrounded there by fellow Laotians, he started a band because he wanted to be a “party king.” But even in a crowd, he felt alone.
He met Bounchan in Kansas, where his heart broke at her brokenness. Together they moved to Sioux City, Iowa, for better jobs. Soon, at the request of a Lutheran pastor, he and a musical group he’d started began to play for church worship services. It was a gig, he says, shrugging his shoulders. Sometimes, up front there, he was high
When Keo was a child, his mother sent him to spend several years at a Buddhist temple. He says he remained a Buddhist, and even though he was alone, he was always on the lookout for the Messiah.
It was joy on the faces of Christian believers that puzzled Keo and eventually led him one night to question Khay Baccam, a local evangelist. “When Khay told me about Jesus, I compared the gospel to the Buddhist way. You know, Buddhists are searching for the Messiah. Khay told me that this Jesus is the real Messiah.” He shakes his head as if it remains incredible. “I was a Buddhist. I was a monk in the temple.” He shakes his head again. “But I found what I was looking for.”
That night of questions was an all-nighter unlike any he’d ever experienced. “The Holy Spirit must have been calling me, he must have been working in me,” he says, “because that night, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior—in the all-night talking.”
Something changed forever in him, as it had in Bounchan, who had come closer to faith in Christ before her husband. Today, Keo is an ordained evangelist at the Lao Unity Church, an emerging congregation in Sioux City, Iowa, where he and Bounchan are leaders.
Today, Keo and Bounchan are together, in community with the Lord of heaven and earth—the Savior of prodigal sons, abandoned daughters, and red-eyed church musicians.
Today, they are no longer alone.
About the Author
James C. Schaap is a writer who lives in Sioux Center, Iowa.