by Vanna In
Life was not easy for anyone in my family.
Being Cambodian refugees in America was extremely hard. We did not know how to cope with the changes of being in another country. My family was riddled with anger, abuse, violence and addiction. There was so much pain in my family that some of my siblings ran away, some went to prison and some joined a gang.
I ended up following my older brother’s footsteps into his gang and then into prison. The gang was the perfect place for a young man who grew up knowing only anger, violence and abuse. I was involved in over 30 strong-arm robberies in a period of two years, and I was in numerous gang fights. Being a gang member was fun—until the night I was looking to make a name for myself.
It was November 1993, and I was 17 years old and full of rage. That night I was involved in the death of a rival gang member. I was the main suspect, since I was the one who initiated the scrum. I was now facing 30 years to life.
At a loss, I turned to Buddha for help. I cried out to Buddha every night when I was in juvenile hall and then the county jail. Then a chaplain came by and dropped off books. These books were about others in my position, facing hard time. I noticed a common theme: They all gave their lives to God. Soon, it would be my turn.
It was during my time in the county jail that I heard the call of the Holy Spirit for me to give my life to God. I rejected this call, and I told the Holy Spirit that I cannot, because I am a Buddhist. Then I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit tell me to give my life to God, and I surrendered my life to God one evening in March 1994.
I changed my “not guilty” plea to “guilty” and signed a plea bargain for second degree murder, which carried a sentence of 15 years to life. I served the remainder of my sentence in California’s juvenile justice system.
Upon my release in October 2001, God led me to Hope Now For Youth, a parachurch organization that helped me obtain employment. I wanted to go back to school, and I ended up at Fresno Pacific University and then Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, then known as MB Biblical Seminary. I earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical and religious studies and a master’s degree in Christian ministry.
I take full responsibility for my actions that landed me in jail. As a permanent resident with an aggravated felony, I have lost all hope of ever becoming a U.S. citizen. I have been ordered deported and regularly check in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.). Even today, I face the prospect of being ripped from my wife, my three children, my mother-in-law, my church and community. If God allows it, I would like to be in vocational ministry the rest of my life.
Vanna In is youth pastor at North Fresno (Calif.) Church. He is married to Sokmarly and is the proud father of two boys and a girl: Arun, Jeevin and Thanny. His favorite quote is, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words” (traditionally attributed to St Francis of Assisi).