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Organ transplants stir families to remember
refugee family’s crisis of 25 years before

PEORIA, Ariz. (BP)–It’s funny, sometimes, where your mind goes.

For Paul Lewis, pastor of Sunrise Mountain Baptist Church in Peoria, Ariz., the news that his son, Tim, would need a kidney transplant — and that the donor would be Tim’s brother, Dan — sent his mind cascading back 25 years to a pew at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center, and a promise.

It was the summer of 1978, and the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) presentation on the plight of Thai and Laotian refugees in a post-Vietnam Asia touched many in the Glorieta audience. Invited to sign a pledge card volunteering his church to sponsor some refugees, Lewis reluctantly pulled out a pen.

He volunteered his Carson City, Nev., congregation’s hospitality — but only, he wrote, “if there’s a group that nobody else will take.”

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That pledge card was all but forgotten when, several months later, a phone call came: Could Carson City still handle some refugees?

Oh, right, Lewis thought, remembering that signature. How many were coming? Three? Four?

Thirteen.

“What have you gotten us into?” asked Rick Hatch, a member of the church’s missions committee, when Lewis gave him the news. Despite that first reaction, though, Hatch was intrigued. He’d been following news reports on the refugees, and “I got a real burden for them, and was praying for them.”

The two men prayed together, and “both agreed that it was what we needed to do,” Lewis recounhted. He presented the plan to the church, where not everyone was so receptive. Some were still wrestling with their own Vietnam experiences; others frowned on finding jobs for foreigners during a recession.

“Overall,” though, Lewis said, “the church was very supportive.” And, in time, “even those who opposed it came on board.” Still, he knows now, “they didn’t know what they were doing. I didn’t know what we were doing.”

How much the Carson City crowd didn’t know became apparent two days before Christmas, when the refugees landed in Reno, 30 miles away.

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“That was a memorable night,” Lewis recalled. “It was cold, and kind of spitting snow. The refugees all came with pretty much the clothes on their backs” — clothes that were not designed for Nevada in winter. “None of them had coats, so … everyone of us took off our coats and gave them to them. Nothing else we could do.”

“What were we going to do with all these people?” Hatch recalled thinking. “None of them could speak English — not a one of them. We rented a house for them, and when we went over to see them, they had the heater blowing and every window open.”

Almost immediately, a much more serious problem arose. On Christmas day, a church member swung by to drop off presents for the family, and found one of the sons gravely ill.

“We’ve got to do something,” he told Hatch. “Something’s seriously wrong.”

Lewis, Hatch and others raced the 16-year-old boy to a local emergency room.

“The doctor came out, tears in his eyes,” Lewis recounted. “He said, ‘I know you guys have been criticized by a lot of people for doing this for these refugees. But I’m a Christian, and I want you to know that I really appreciate what you’re doing. And if you’d gotten this young man here an hour later, he would have died.'”

For Lewis, those words clenched the intuition of a few months before.

“I had felt all along that it was the thing to do. I just felt His presence all the way through. But when I heard the doctor say that, that was the confirmation that it was absolutely right.”

The boy needed a kidney transplant. For the next six months while he waited for a donor, most of Lewis’ congregation took turns driving the boy five hours to the nearest large city for dialysis. “The whole church had to pitch in,” Hatch said. “Three times a week.”

Not long after, the family moved to join other Laotians in Anaheim, Calif. Lewis and his wife, Ann, visited them there once, then lost track. To their knowledge, only one member of the family ever became a Christian. Twenty-five years have passed.

In January, Hatch, now pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Phoenix, saw his son Mike undergo a successful kidney transplant. In May, one of Lewis’ sons gave a kidney to his brother. And both men remember a teenage boy who couldn’t speak English, and the difference an hour made, one long ago Christmas day.

“We’re all in this same boat of need,” Lewis said, “and God has promised to take care of us. It is just an assurance of His guidance and presence in our lives. He was guiding us then, and He’s guiding us and our sons now.”
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(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: THE LEWIS FAMILY and THE HATCH FAMILY.