One day in the summer of 2020, police officers and local officials crowded around Phomme’s little house in the Luang Prabang province of central Laos.
They knew the place well. They had watched people come and go frequently from the house, sometimes stopping for a brief chat but other times staying for meetings that included prayers and singing.
Phomme had been watched and followed for months, ever since boldly telling a story of hope and healing that led five families to follow Jesus Christ. Local officials wanted to put a stop to the spread of this religious influence. Standing menacingly around her home, they gave her an ultimatum: leave Jesus or leave the district. “We want you to leave your faith,” they told her. “We want no Christians in this district.”
Other villagers soon began to join the authorities outside Phomme’s house, threatening and belittling her for her Christian faith. “Tell the district governor to have her arrested,” she heard them say. “Why keep her alive? They used to kill people like her in the past; if she gets killed, who have we wronged?”
Villagers who were more friendly towards her worried for her safety and urged her to renounce her faith. But while Phomme’s family members and friends inside the house sought cover, she calmly stood her ground.
When police demanded her family registration book — a document that includes marriage, birth and property records and is required for residence, education, work and even travel outside the province — she gave them a copy, keeping the original hidden away. At their demand, she quietly surrendered her mobile phone and answered their questions, patiently offering her reasons for the hope she professed.
After hurling intimidating threats and insults at Phomme for hours, the crowd finally dispersed. As if nothing could be more natural, Phomme then turned her attention to making sticky rice and vegetables for her husband and two children.
“Even when I heard these threats,” she said, “I was not hurt by them at all in my heart. Why was I not scared? Why did I not think at all to renounce my faith? I told myself to be patient and steadfast.”
A Surprising Resolve
The Phomme who stood up to police without fear would have been unrecognisable to friends from her earlier years. “Christ changed me to be a brave person to share about Jesus,” Phomme said. “Before, I was shy and not talkative.”
When her brother Sithon and one of his friends were arrested and mistreated because of their faith in Christ, Phomme had seen first hand how faith and persecution go hand in hand. She said her father and brothers had even been afraid to lead her to Christ because they knew it would result in suffering.
“I saw with my own eyes how they hurt Christians,” she said, “but I still wanted to believe. It was deep in my heart to want to believe.”
Complicating her desire to faithfully follow Christ was her family’s struggle with illness and poverty. “My husband was ill, and I was suffering with my husband,” Phomme said. “Many in the village looked down on our family because of this.”
Villagers criticised the family for not being able to support themselves on their considerable amount of land. They said, “His wife does not know how to make a living or find food for the family,” Phomme recalled. She admitted it was partly true. “I did not know how to find food or have any skill to earn a living,” she said.
Neighbours suggested spiritual help, but for many Khmu and Hmong people in the district, that meant turning to the spirits of ancestors or nature. As animists, they believed the spirits could help in many ways if you were loyal and respectful to them. Phomme, who also is Khmu, had experienced that kind of religion her whole life.
“When I was worshipping spirits, it was like my heart was empty,” Phomme said. “I felt like my body had no soul. I was only able to hear about [God’s love and grace] when my relatives started to come to Christ.”
Phomme and her husband, Vat, discussed the cost of following Jesus Christ, as he too had witnessed the persecution of Phomme’s family members. Vat worried that his wife might find the ongoing pressure and persecution too much to bear, but he also saw the hope offered through faith. Surprised by the resolve of his normally timid wife, he joined her in committing to follow Christ, determined to stand up to whatever persecution came their way.
Phomme and Vat asked church leaders in a nearby town to disciple and pray for them. In addition to gaining spiritual health, Vat’s physical health then began to improve. “My family has been blessed,” Phomme said. “Our family’s health is much stronger.” Phomme soon found herself on a path she hadn’t imagined.
Selling Vegetables, Sowing Seeds
Vat’s physical healing was just the beginning of the changes the family experienced after placing their faith in Christ. “We were so full of joy and happiness when we came to the church,” Phomme recalled. “I feel so strong in my faith. I wonder where this faith of mine came from at times, but I know it is from the Lord. Believing in the Lord has made me gain more wisdom.”
Phomme often prays for those with health problems, describing how her family members were healed after coming to faith. “You see, spirits control you; they do not help,” she tells them. “We can take medicine, but the real healer is Jesus. It is evident with my husband … he may not be in peak condition, but he is healed. Everyone that saw him was amazed and full of praise.”
She also gives God praise for the wisdom to start a business venture that helps support her family while providing greater opportunities to share the gospel. Phomme buys vegetables from farmers and sells them at markets in nearby villages. When she arrives in each village, she shares songs and gospel messages in the Khmu language. Afterwards, villagers often stay to ask her questions, hear her testimony or hear her read from God’s Word.
“When I run errands, I bring Jesus with me,” she said. “I bring my Bible and leave it in my motorbike. When I ride my bike, I sing worship songs. I go with the Lord. I always talk to the Lord when I go to different villages to sell my goods.”
Some speak disparagingly of Phomme and try to damage her business, telling people not to buy from her because she is a Christian. The police follow her to her suppliers and try to prevent them from selling to her, and they even built a gate to block her access to a road she used. Phomme is not discouraged, however, from continuing her work and sharing her faith with those who will listen.
“There are many people that do not like me,” Phomme said. “There are many that do not want to get near me or buy my goods. If they do not like me, then I leave it as it is. Some do not listen, but some are curious and want to know more. Some eventually are led to Christ.”
Phomme said she has led 13 families to the Lord during her work selling vegetables. When she meets with new believers, she teaches them to be prepared for persecution.
“People do not like Christians,” she tells new believers. “Just hearing the word ‘Jesus’ makes many people angry. People hate this a lot. Even today, many people hate me. Yet I am patient. I have a heart that is not full of hatred to anyone. I have love towards others. Can you be like me?”
The threat of eviction still hangs over Phomme and her family, officials still track her movements and contacts, and people still want to ruin her business because of her faith in Christ. But Phomme joyfully perseveres.
Watching his wife face persecution, Vat has noticed a dramatic change. “He says my heart has widened,” Phomme said with a chuckle. “I am not scared, and I don’t feel hatred toward anyone who persecutes me. I do not have a heart of fear, like when we worshipped spirits. My heart is to fight on.”