There’s a skateboard parked beside the door, leaning casually against the yellow-brown brick. Inside the rented building on School Street, in a makeshift chapel, everyone is gathering for sacrament meeting. There are a few adults in front, and about eight or ten, including missionaries, are scattered throughout the congregation. But that’s all. It looks more like a combined gathering of the Primary, Young Men, and Young Women.
Then the meeting begins. It is a sacrament meeting. And if most of the adults seem to be missing, the Spirit isn’t. The Asian Branch in Lynn, Massachusetts, may not be your ordinary branch in many ways. It’s certainly much younger than most. But if you are looking for love, fellowship, enthusiasm—and most of all the Spirit—you will find them here in abundance.
Most of the young people here come from refugee families whose parents work long hours, struggling to make a living. Some of the parents feel they don’t have the time or the language skills to take the missionary lessons themselves. And many prefer to keep their old religious traditions. But they like what the Church is doing to strengthen their children.
Hung Mai, 18, is originally from Vietnam. One of the first members in this branch, he knows the source of the strength you feel here: “In the Church we are a big family. No matter if you are Laotian, Cambodian, or whatever, we are brothers and sisters, and we stay together.”
“We help each other out,” adds Maly Souvanthong.
Here in the Lynn Branch, helping out means a whole lot of fellowshipping, the kind that brought Ngan Sout into the waters of baptism after four years of on-and-off attendance and missionary lessons. Once, she was going to be baptized, but some of her school friends started telling her how bad the Mormons were. “I was confused,” she says, “so I backed out again for a year.”
That’s when her friend Chenda Hak stepped in. Chenda kept inviting Ngan to church and to the activities. Finally Ngan said, “Just for you, I will go.”
This time, Ngan was ready. She was baptized. And now when friends question her decision, she says, “I’m happy now. I wish this had happened a long time ago, you know? Because I would have been happy all along.”
Around here, having a friend like Chenda Hak is a big help. This isn’t always an easy place to grow up in. These LDS youth can recite a whole alphabet of local gang names. A lot of other Asian teens who have nothing else to hang onto get drawn into these gangs. One young girl in the branch talks quietly and sadly about her own brother—not LDS—who is a gang member and comes home late at night “sick and bruised from fighting.”
One who escaped a brush with gang life is Ath Ket, 16, a Cambodian by birth. Ath recalls what his life was like before he encountered the Church: “It was pretty bad. I used to hang around gang members a lot.” And if he hadn’t met the elders that day four years ago as he walked along the Boston Common? “I’d probably be hanging around, fighting, stealing cars, drinking.”
But Ath did meet the Elders and did agree to hear the lessons. He had already been baptized into another church, but the missionaries’ message rang true. “I feel good about the Church. Now I know it’s true. I learn more about it every day.”
Ngan and Ath are just two examples of the productive fellowshipping going on here. Nearly everyone here was brought into the Church by a sister, a cousin, a friend. And everyone you talk to is working on someone else. But their real, long-term mission goal is to go back to Cambodia or Laos or Vietnam some day as a missionary. Says Maly, “I want to be the first missionary in Laos and build up a whole church there.” Hung Mai wants to go to Vietnam twice—once while he’s young, once later in life with his wife.
For now, those lands are closed to missionaries. But their desire to go back shows the strong ties these young people feel with their homelands. Although most of them were very young when they left, and although they love life in the U.S., they also love their heritage and want to preserve the best parts—things like foods, dances, and language. And some things they will pass along not because they are pleasant, but because they will help future generations treasure life and liberty even more. For example, Thoeun So, 15, doesn’t really remember life in Cambodia. But he knows the harrowing stories of his family’s escape. He will pass these stories along to his children and grandchildren, along with language and culture.
Those words language and culture bring up one of the most impressive things about the “Asian” branch in Lynn.
What many don’t realize is that Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian languages and cultures are as different from one another as French, German, and English. Yet this group of young Latter-day Saints has molded itself into a family.
Watch them clambering around the U.S.S. Constitution—“Old Ironsides” in Boston Harbor. Watch them browsing among street vendors in downtown Boston, or strolling through the famous Boston Common. They push and jostle and move together like a large, energetic family. Listen to their teasing and banter, and you begin to hear how well they know each other and how much they care. It’s more than just what you usually see between the young people in a ward. They really act like brothers and sisters. Maly simply calls it “the brotherhood-sisterhood thing.”
And what do they see for the future of their “family,” say, ten years down the road? For one thing, if they have their way, the rented brick building won’t hold all of them. As they talk about it, their voices blend into an excited babble: “It’ll be more crowded; we’ll have to make it bigger.” “We’re going to build a new church.” “I’ll be an elder.” “I’ll be a missionary.” “It’ll be a ward with an Asian bishop.”
Seeing what they’ve accomplished so far, you know it isn’t all talk. They haven’t come this far just to fail.
What Is It Like to Be a Refugee?
Put yourself in this situation: Imagine that a devastating plague is sweeping across your country. Your family must leave everything behind and flee to, say, China. Some of your own family members are left behind in the turmoil, and you may never see them again.
You arrive in your new country with only the clothes on your back. But the Chinese are gracious, and you receive many things—
Food. Nearly all of it is strange. Some is delicious, some so foreign you don’t even know how to cook it.
Clothing. Most is cast-off, and so different that you unknowingly wear Chinese pajamas to school on your first day.
Education. But in a language so foreign to yours that there are no similar words.
A different name. You may keep your given name, of course, but most Chinese cannot pronounce it, so you shorten it, alter it, or even take a Chinese name.
Life is even more difficult for your parents. They can find only menial, low-paying jobs. The new language is much harder for them, and you find yourself dealing with businesses and government agencies on their behalf.
Those who fled their homelands in search of peace and freedom have gone through this and much more.
Idea from LeAnn Hunt, Oakton VA Stake.