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Joshua Vang, 54, spread Christianity among Asian refugees

BY: Stephania H. Davis - November 18, 2000, Saturday

Dr. Joshua Vang escaped poverty and Communist persecution in Laos to develop a unique ministry in America. He devoted his career to helping Lao, Hmong and other Southeast Asian immigrants live successful Christian lives.

"This was his home, but his heart was with his people," said Dr. J. Don Aderhold, a professor of Greek and the New Testament at the Decatur campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. "Last spring he heard about the intense persecution of Christians in Thailand, and he just packed up and went to help them."

The funeral for Joshua Su Vang, 54, of Duluth, who died at Emory University Hospital on Monday of a heart attack, a complication of liver cancer, is 1 p. m. today at Columbia Drive Baptist Church. A.S. Turner & Sons is in charge of arrangements.

Dr. Vang's cancer was diagnosed while he was in Thailand. He delayed returning because of his work, said Dr. Aderhold.

Dr. Vang grew up in a small village led by his father, an opium trader. The family was wealthy until --- when Dr. Vang was about 6 --- his father became a Christian and gave up the opium business, plunging his family, which included two wives and 27 children, into poverty.

"They became farmers and, because there were so many people, it was a very poor environment and there was not enough food," said Mrs. Vang.

Many parents tell their children about their long, hard shoeless walks to school in bad weather. But Dr. Vang was telling his boys the truth about his childhood in Laos.

"He had to walk six kilometers (3.75 miles) one way to school without shoes, " said his wife, Somchit Vang of Duluth. "Winter or summer, rainy season or not, no shoes."

Despite the hardships, Dr. Vang completed his secondary education in Laos. He attended the seminary in Thailand and also studied at a seminary in Auckland, New Zealand. It was ministers there who decided to call Dr. Vang, who was named Su by his parents, Joshua, which means "deliverer."

After returning to Laos from New Zealand, Dr. Vang became executive general secretary of the Lao National Churches. As Communists took over the country in 1975, Dr. Vang, with his wife and their infant son, fled to a Thai refugee camp. A year later they went to Lawrenceville, Ky. Dr. Vang immediately set about ministering to his people, starting his first Lao church in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1977 under the auspices of the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church.

"He had a big heart for the tribal people," said Mrs. Vang. "He felt they had been mistreated and neglected by the government. They came here to find a better life, and he wanted to help them have it. Others always came first and he came second."

It was while he was in Iowa that Dr. Vang, who earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1980 from a school in England, first came to the attention of Dr. Aderhold, then senior minister at Columbia Drive. The church had sponsored a Lao family, which soon led to an influx of more than 1,000 Lao and Hmong refugees to Decatur.

"No one spoke their language, and so we heard about Dr. Vang and asked him to come talk with us," said Dr. Aderhold. "We were so impressed with his deep dedication to the Word and the people that we immediately asked him to come direct our refugee program."

For the next 20 years, Dr. Vang traveled the country organizing 135 Lao, Hmong and Thai Baptist churches. His work left little time to be with his three sons. But when he could, he took them camping, fishing and on business trips.

Survivors include two other sons, Hmong Vang of Duluth and John Vang of Irvine, Calif.; his parents, Xay Pao and May Shoua Vang of Monroe; and 10 brothers and sisters; and 12 half-brothers and sisters.