Imprisoned In Laos
by Meg Canfield
"Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12).
In 1982, Laotian refugees settled in my hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas, after the war in Southeast Asia. Through the efforts of Tom and Lou Porter, a Laotian congregation was formed at what was then called the Windsor Drive Church of Christ.
Members of the congregation were challenged to adopt a Laotian family. Because our family had an interest in missions and this was a great opportunity for outreach, we met and immediately fell in love with a Laotian mother, Dy, and her daughter, Knott.
During the next 12 years, my husband, Jerry, and I spent a few weeks each year in Nigeria, Indonesia and the South Pacific. Being separated from Jerry when he sometimes went without me was difficult. So in 1996, when Jerry came home from a two-week trip to Laos and announced, "It is time for us to go to help in Laos," I replied, "Let's go."
We attended an intensive Laotian language course at Arizona State University and sold part of our farm and cattle. We also investigated water-well drilling and latrine construction as aid projects for the Laotian people to prepare for our mission.
For the first year we would spend eight months in Laos and the second year only four months. That did not seem too sacrificial; I could handle it.
Only six or seven Christians met in Laos on Sundays in l995. Encouraged by Ken and Jean Fox, the church grew. Many were interested in learning about Jesus Christ. Visitors came to services weekly. During 1997, the church was meeting four nights a week at various home locations, and growth was evident. By fall, approximately 65 people were meeting during the Sunday worship service.
Except for a few minor adjustments, our first year, 1997, went smoothly. Adjusting to the slow pace of the Laotian bureaucracy took time, but we used the free time to teach English and the Bible while we developed loving relationships and worshiped with a small group of Laotian Christians in the capitol city of Vientiane.
After spending the holidays in the States, we were off again to Laos. Near the end of January, the Laotian Christians held a week-long Bible study. We had visitors from outside of town and from within Vientiane. We were especially joyful about the seven precious souls who obeyed the gospel that week. The studies would conclude on Friday evening.
The Laotian Christians studied from 7 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. Jerry and I arrived at 7 p.m. for the last lesson of a study about Revelation.
As we sat and read, we suddenly heard footsteps marching up the walkway and then into the assembly. I thought, Is this real or is it a prank? The men all wore uniforms displaying the words "immigration" or "municipal police." This surely was a joke. I figured it was a scare tactic and then after the officials finished with their bullying, we could get on with the study.
Suddenly, cameras were flashing, video cameras were taping, and lights were blinding my eyes. I saw the officials remove Kuen Sy, the house owner, along with his son, Bonleurt. The officials were looking at the paperwork that was presented to them, and Kuen Sy and Bonleurt did not show any sign of being intimidated.
As this was going on outside, a few of the brethren left the assembly to visit the bathroom, as if they knew they might not have the freedom to do so again soon. I thought, If I only had a cell phone, I would go to the bathroom and call someone!
They then asked if any foreigners were at the meeting. That was my first reality check. I had not really thought of myself as a foreigner but I was.
After 45 minutes of much talk back and forth, it was decided that the five foreigners in the room would be taken away first: a French woman by the name of Ann, one Thai gentleman and visiting preacher, Udorn, and three Americans - Ken Fox, Jerry and me.
The expressions on the faces of my Laotian friends did not seem troubled about the situation. As I left, Bontavay said, "See you later." The brethren knew that no matter what the outcome, their faith was in the Lord, and He would see them through.
The Bible studies of the precious few days were now coming alive. The examples from Acts, Romans and Revelation were fresh on our minds and provided the strength to endure. We were told that we were being escorted to the international prison and to give the policeman our keys. The five foreigners loaded into our truck and Ken's van.
We could barely keep from laughing as the policeman driving Ken's van choked and chugged along in the unfamiliar vehicle. To my surprise, we were taken to a real prison. Confusion followed as the officials were not sure if they should put us behind the 15-foot, barbed-wire topped fence, complete with armed guards, or deliver us to the front office of the compound where less vile offenders are usually interrogated. After much conversation, it was decided we should be banished, vehicles and all, behind the enormous iron gate.
Ann and I were then separated from the three men, and the questioning began - Ann first and then me. I was frisked and asked if I was hiding any possessions such as jewelry or contraband. I questioned whether this severe treatment was really necessary, telling them that I was a Christian and not a threat to them.
Later I realized that all Christians are a threat to anything evil. After the first round of interrogation, I asked, "Why am I at this place? What have I done wrong?" I got no response.
My next worry was finding a bathroom. I asked for what I needed, just as the Scripture tells us to do, but the reply was no. Okay, I thought, I can do this. God always provides and He will see me through this ordeal.
Ann and I were then taken to a cell to spend the night. The room was very small, 8-by-10 feet, with a raised wooden platform for sleeping. Bars were on the windrows and doors, but the cell was remarkably clean and not offensive.
Our five other cell mates were pleasant. The night was quite cold, and they willingly shared their blankets and pillows with us.
The other prisoners asked if we were comfortable, and this time I meekly asked if there was a bathroom. Much to my astonishment, one was right there in the cell. The reason I had been inspired to wear a skirt instead of slacks that night then became apparent. Asian-style toilets are much more conducive to skirts. Again, the Lord had taken care of my needs.
Once more they asked if we were comfortable, and again I decided to be honest and tell them my feet were cold. They all laughed and muttered something back and forth, and a pair of socks appeared. My faith was growing by leaps and bounds.
After the lights were turned off, I pretended to sleep. For a long time, I could heard Ann telling the other women about what had transpired at the Bible study. As she spoke in Laotian, I listened to the words "Bible," "brethren", "faith" and "Jesus" and experienced a calmness as she shared with them the Good News about Jesus Christ.
With the morning came hopes of being released. The women shared their bananas, bread and water. I found comfort in their assurance that "the U.S. Embassy is very strong; you will not be here for long."
Not knowing whether our plight was known to anyone outside the prison, I was beginning to understand the scripture explaining that my citizenship is in heaven and that "neither death nor life, nor angles nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:38 NKJV)
We were taken from the international prison to the municipal building for more questioning. As we waited our turn for more interrogation, Ann and I were astounded by the arrival of one of our Laotian sisters in Christ, Phonsawan. She brought oranges and a smile bigger than Texas.
We were elated to see her. But sadness overcame us as she told us that many of the Laotian brethren, including her husband, also had been taken to jail.
As we talked and relived the events of the last 24 hours, we laughed and cried and embraced. I felt helpless, seeing her all alone and nine months pregnant, having to bear the heavy burden of caring for all of her imprisoned brethren.
The Lord found much favor in her because of the great responsibility He had placed upon her. That Jerry, Ken and Udorn had been placed in separate rooms and were not able to visit with Phonsawan caused me to be sad. She was a ray of sunshine in that dismal nightmare.
Later that afternoon, the questioning became more intense. An interpreter was present, and the first phrase from his lips was, "I think you will cooperate with us, and this will go smoothly."
As he began speaking in a kind, gentle way, I thought, Don't have too much confidence in this wolf in sheep's clothing. It's probably one of the approaches he was taught in Interrogation 101 class. Even Satan looks appealing when he is trying to reel you in.
As I answered the questions, it was apparent by the expression on his face that he did not believe what I was telling him about the reason our group had been meeting. But Jerry had told me to be perfectly honest.
We left the municipal building that evening for our new accommodations. It is my belief that they waited until dark to take us so we could not see the filth of the place. It did have air conditioning and running water sometimes, but the facility was filled with mosquitoes, ants, dirt and a trash can that had not been emptied for years. That night for only the second time since our capture, we were given bread and water, and it was very satisfying.
We were told to leave the light on so when the guards came to check on us, they could see we had not escaped. And they did check the cell about every 30 minutes.
Before we turned in for bed, however, were asked what we would like for breakfast and told we would have to pay for it. We were glad to pay for the food, because by this time we were getting very hungry.
Sunday arrived, and still no word came about whether anyone anywhere knew we were in jail. Regardless, it was to be a day of worship and remembering the Lord's sacrifice. We were given back our possessions, and I was blessed to receive my Bible and Laotian songbook.
Ann and I read scriptures and decided to remember the Lord's suffering by partaking of some bread and drinking water. We prayed and sang songs for a couple of hours.
Soon the curiosity of the guards could no longer be controlled, and they entered our room to observe our ceremony and to ask questions. Ann took this opportunity to share the Good News again. After we were once again alone, we felt uplifted and encouraged as we read the trials of David and Paul. For the first time we could completely relate to some of the prayers they expressed.
Later, we were interrogated again, and the day dragged on. That evening the guards seemed to soften a bit, and we were asked if there was anything we needed. Ann made a list, and on Monday, the fourth day of confinement, Christmas arrived for Ann and me. A sack came with a bar of soap, bottle of shampoo, towel, toothbrush, tube of toothpaste, deck of cards, and two pairs of underwear - they were two sizes too small, but it was a nice gesture.
After the gifts were given, along with our morning meal of rice soup, several of the guards began cleaning up. A few swipes of the broom were made, and two days of accumulated sacks of trash were thrown out of our window onto the ground. We suspected something was about to happened and prayed it would be a visit from the U.S. Embassy.
After the Monday interrogation session, we were able to be together with the men for a short time. They had been separated from us the entire time, and it was good to see Jerry again.
At 3 p.m. on the fourth day, we were allowed to meet with approximately 13 Laotian government officials and Mr. Jess, a representative from the U. S. Embassy. He assured us that everything was being done to secure our release and informed us of the details that had begun the moment they knew about our arrest.
My eyes filled with tears at that moment, and I recalled Philippians 4:8: "Finally brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things."
The scripture kept my mind from what I was tempted to reflect upon. Later that evening, Jerry and I were taken by the authorities to our house to gather personal items and food.
After we arrived, Jerry sat at the kitchen table with three of the escorting officers while I went upstairs. Although we had been denied phone calls for four days, I was determined to call home to let them know that we were unharmed and not to worry.
My main concern was that my mother would miss my scheduled weekly phone call and wonder why I had neglected to telephone her. Little did I know that she and the rest of the world already knew about our plight. I was so nervous that I locked the keys and my glasses in the house and forgot most of what we were there to gather.
After arriving back at the detention facility, we were told that the interrogation was completed, the materials were being assimilated, and that we would soon know the outcome of this tragedy.
That night was more peaceful with anticipation of the following day bringing our release. As I rested on my bed, I could only think of how wonderful it was in this war of good and evil to be in the Christian regiment. King Jesus, Head of command, had a strategic plan all laid out. No matter how long the war raged, we would win.
Tuesday arrived, and we waited for an interminable amount of time. Instead of release though, the interrogators returned to further question Jerry, Ken and Udorn. After the session was over, we conspired about how to contact the outside world. Finally, at about 5 p.m., Mr. Jess arrived with two vehicles to collect us.
We were concerned about the release of the Thai and French nationals, and Mr. Jess took it upon himself to release them from prison also. He told us he was taking a great risk, but he was willing to try. Again, the Lord was with us.
During the ride to the U. S. Embassy for briefing, Mr. Jess informed us for the first time about all the publicity that had surrounded this incident. This time I could not hold back tears on hearing the recognition the Lord had received through the incarceration of a few Christians in far away Vientiane, Laos. Although released from custody, we were only given seven days to pack up and leave the country. The farewells with the Laotian brethren who had not been arrested were difficult.
Thirty of the people we were closest to were still in prison, and to leave without seeing them and with no assurance of ever seeing them again in this lifetime was a torture much greater than being in jail. The great joy of returning to my physical family and the wonderful church family in Fort Smith has been deadened by the dull reality that the Lao brethren remain in prison.
After two weeks, 17 of the 30 brethren were finally released. But as of April 6, we have just received news of the sentencing of the 13 still imprisoned. Eight prisoners have been sentenced to three years, two to one year, and three - all of whom are innocent grandmothers - were sentenced to serve an additional two months.
I count it a joy to have shared in a small way this experience with the Laotian brethren. My fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in Veintiane, especially the 13 still in prison and their families, continue today to suffer for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
May we all fervently pray that the will of the Father be done, and that His will is for the speedy release of the Laotian Christians and the recognition of their right to assemble to worship the Creator and His Son.
This story was written in loving memory of Lou Porter, who was instrumental in beginning the Laotian work in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Lou served as a grandmother to many of the Laotian families. She was killed in an automobile accident March 3, 1998, as the events in the above article were unfolding.
Link to Christian Woman Magazine
Link to Laotian Injustice for an update on the situation of the Laotian prisoners