Featured Stories, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

‘Keep your eyes on the prize’

Retired ELCA pastor Vern Rice; the Rev. William Siong, Good Samaritan Lutheran Church (ELCA), St. Paul; and Koua Fong Lee all tell Lee's story of conviction and imprisonment for a 2006 accident caused when brakes on his Toyota Camry failed. Later, when Toyota was forced to recall brakes on similar cars, Lee's case was reopened and charges for a retrial were not filed. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Christ the King Lutheran Church (ELCA), New Brighton, Minnesota, and Hmong Central Lutheran Church (ELCA), St. Paul, have been celebrating joint ministry with a shared meal for about five or six years now, according to the Rev. Vern Rice, a retired pastor and member at Christ the King. This year, a new mission start, Good Samaritan Lutheran Church, a Hmong mission congregation worshipping at Grace Lutheran Church (ELCA), St. Paul, joined in for the Hmong Fellowship Dinner, sponsored by the Local Mission Partners Team of Christ the King,

This year food and fellowship weren’t the only items on the menu. Koua Fong Lee, the man who served two years in prison after being convicted of homicide in 2006 when the brakes on his 1996 Toyota Camry did not work, was the featured speaker. Although the criminal aspects of the case have been dismissed, pending civil actions prevented him from discussing specifics regarding the case. Lee talked about his conversion experience while in jail.

Koua Fong Lee was born in Laos, but his family moved to Thailand in 1983. He lived there in a refugee camp for 20 years before immigrating to the U.S. in 2004. Lee brought a dream of a college education with him to the U.S., along with a wife and young family.

Kong Her and Vickie Lee, members of the young adult ministry at Hmong Central Lutheran Church, St. Paul, are leading Hmong Fellowship Dinner participants in a game of Mixer Bingo. Metro Lutheran photos: Bob Hulteen

That dream was shattered in 2006 when, driving home from Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Lee exited I-94 at Snelling Avenue. “I wanted to turn left on Snelling,” he recalled. “I saw a red light and a couple cars in front of me. I took my foot off the pedal and put it on the brake, but nothing happened.”

He remembers yelling to the others in the car, “The brakes aren’t working.” He recalls trying to avoid the car in front of him, but his Toyota hit it from behind. Two people died at the scene; another died later from injuries related to the accident.

Following an emotional court case, a jury found Lee guilty and a judge sentenced him to eight years in prison

Bound in jail

Lee struggled in prison. “I felt very sad about the people who were killed,” he told the audience at Christ the King. “I wondered why I had come to this country and then [this tragedy] happened.” He was also concerned for his family in his absence. “I was in jail, and I was depressed.”

He said he was looking for something to read and found a book. Reading that book “cheered me up,” he said. “I asked people, ‘What is this book?,’ and they said, ‘It’s the Bible.’ I asked, ‘What is the Bible?’ They responded, ‘It is God’s book, God’s story.’

“I went to a Bible study and invited Jesus Christ into my life.”

After two-and-a-half years in prison, a reporter came to the Lino Lakes prison, requesting an interview with Lee. When prison officials told him about the waiting reporter, he said they must have the wrong person. It was then that he was informed that Toyota had issued a recall and that his case was re-opened.

Mixer Bingo participants are allowed to "fill" a space when they meet a person with a certain characteristic -- for example, they were born in a place other than Minnesota or they own a cabin up north.

“I thank God for the people who protested for my release,” Lee said. On August 5, 2010, after a four-day hearing, the request for a re-trial was granted by Judge Joanne Smith. Prosecutors declined to re-charge Lee, thus dismissing the case. Lee was set free.

“I got my drivers license back,” said Lee.

The dungeons shook, the chains fell off

The Rev. William Siong, former pastor of Hmong Central and current mission developer with Good Samaritan, explained that he had never met Koua Fong Lee, although he did have relatives in the congregation. Siong and his congregation did pray for Lee while he was in prison, Siong said.

Lee’s relatives invited Siong to the release celebration. It was there they first shook hands.

“When I got out of prison, I looked for a church. I went to Good Samaritan and decided I wanted to do something with that church,” Lee said. “As a Hmong person, it was difficult for me to become a Christian. Why? Hmong culture has its own set of beliefs.”

“[Lee’s] mother-in-law is a shaman,” said Siong. “They are animists, … and they feel we are betraying our family and culture” by converting to Christianity.

Lee’s wife, Panghoua Moua, is pleased with how his life has changed. “After his years in prison, his mind was miserable.” His decision to become a Christian has brought some healing for him, she explained.

Panghoua, who was pregnant when Lee entered prison, gave birth to a daughter while Lee was incarcerated. “At the time I had three little children and this new baby,” she said. “I prayed that God would raise the children even though I would be without [Lee] for eight years.” While praying, she decided to name their daughter Angel.

People of all ages played Mixer Bingo.

Many prayers were answered, Lee would say. “I want to go to college. I want to be a pastor, if God wants me to be. I want to do what God wants. I would ask you to pray for me so that I can do God’s work.”

Bound together

The relationship between Christ the King and the two Hmong congregations is not so surprising. Christ the King is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011. It was the last mission start of the Augustana Lutheran Church, a church body with an historical commitment to justice, its hospitality, and its outreach within ethnic communities.

And that sense of ministry lives on through Hmong Central Lutheran Church and Good Samaritan as well. Good Samaritan, a mission start that opened its doors in December 2010, is already worshipping about 80 people per week.

And, according to Siong, a group from Hmong Central and Good Samaritan, including Koua Fong Lee, recently traveled to Mississippi to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Siong said, “The Hmong people have been given so many things through the church. Now [we] are giving back to the community.

“Our God loves us, and it’s been great to receive [such hospitality],” Siong said. “But we want to be a sign of God’s love to others now as well.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,