Published September 18, 2014
FOREST PARK — When the Vietnam War ended and American troops pulled out in 1973, the ramifications stretched throughout Indochina. A civil war continued in neighboring Laos that didn’t end until 1975. Communists then controlled the parallel countries.
Oudone Thirakoune and his wife, Sompeng, were Laotian newlyweds, and they fled to Thailand in 1976 for about four years. The U.S. government offered resettlement to some Laotians, and Thirakoune qualified because of his education and experience as an educator. He had worked with American expatriates.
When the U.S. resettled them in Carbondale, IL, Thirakoune immediately enrolled in English as a Second Language classes at Southern Illinois University and was able to speak, read, and write English within a year. This put him a step ahead of most immigrants and opened the door for assisting the other estimated 300 Laotian refugees with their assimilation issues.
The economy often drives refugee resettlement, and jobs were scarce then around Carbondale. So many of the Laotians migrated again, but this time to northern Illinois. Most settled in and around Chicago. The Thirakounes moved to Rockford where his curiosity about America deepened.
“I tried to transition myself into American culture,” Thirakoune said. “It wasn’t enough just to know the language and support ourselves, but we needed to engage with the American community.”
Where to find American culture
Another Laotian immigrant they met there knew of Thirakoune’s motivation, so he made a suggestion.
“If you want to learn about America so much, why don’t you go to church?” the man said.
“I asked him, ‘What is a church?’” Thirakoune recalled.
“A church is like our Buddhist temple,” the man replied. “Many people gather to worship their god, and they do it on Sunday morning.”
Thirakoune had seen busses from a local Southern Baptist church, but assumed there was a cost to ride. When he learned that the bus rides were free, he hopped on.
“They came and visited us and shared the Gospel,” Thirakoune said.
One visit was with Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) missionary Joseph Vang, who led Thirakoune to place his faith in Christ.
That was Thirakoune’s first interaction with a byproduct of the Cooperative Program.
Seminary and church planting
Thirakoune was a natural servant leader as he continued to teach and assist other immigrant families. Those skills helped him transition into another role – pastor and church planter.
Thirakoune earned bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees from Southern Seminary in Louisville through an Atlanta extension directed by Georgia Baptist state missionary An Van Pham. Meanwhile, Thirakoune was planting eight Laotian missions in Georgia, most of which have constituted into churches. Each has received Cooperative Program funds from the Georgia Baptist Convention and NAMB.
Laotian-Americans like living in Georgia for several reasons, Thirakoune said. First, they are able to find jobs here. Second, they identify with the heat and humidity.
“Georgia weather is like home in Laos,” Thirakoune said, “except during the winter, but it is bearable.”
Thirakoune has been here long enough to see the Laotian children grow up and thrive. First-generation parents worked assembly line jobs and in heavy industries, but now their children are teachers, doctors, and lawyers. While that education and advancement is admirable, it also presents new church-planting challenges.
“In the early days, people needed help in their resettlement efforts,” Thirakoune said. “They didn’t know how to drive, or where to go for help.
“Nowadays church planting is a little harder because Laotians are doing well on their own,” he said. “They are distracted now because of their lives; successful because of the economy, self-reliant. They are no longer in need of help from someone.”
Besides currently pastoring two churches, one in Forest Park and one in Cornelia, Thirakoune makes up to three trips annually to Thailand and Laos to train pastors. According to missiologists, Laos is experiencing rapid church growth.
“It helps me to take things more seriously over here,” Thirakoune said. “Most of the time we forget what Christ means to us. But over there, everything is so precious.”
Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming.
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