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When US forces pulled out of Vietnam following the war, those in the region who had fought with the US and its allies were in peril. The parents of Sheehuavah “Zaj” Moua were among the Hmong people forced to flee for their lives when Laos fell under Communist control—escaping across the Mekong River, pursued by Communist forces determined to retaliate against those they deemed enemies.
Zaj admiringly tells how his father heroically led his wife, his cousins, and members of other families from Laos to Thailand, where they could connect with US military transports that would bring them to America.
Even though Zaj—the second youngest of eight brothers and sisters—was born long after that traumatic journey, he knows the story well and acknowledges the danger his father and mother faced in their quest to reach the safety of US shores.
Life in America
A great deal changed for the family as they acclimated to their new lives in California. But although they left much of their Hmong culture behind when they fled Southeast Asia, they continued their practice of Shamanism, belief in an unseen world inhabited by gods, demons, and ancestral spirits, and maintained an altar in their home, looking to those unseen forces for health and guidance.
After a number of years, the family relocated to Wisconsin, where a tragic drowning accident took the life of one of Zaj’s much-loved older brothers.
For Zaj, then fourteen, it was a terrible loss—and one that raised serious questions in his mind.
“That was the first time I was really struck by questions like What is death? What happens after?” He wondered, Do I just stop there—an incomplete process?
“That really scared me,” Zaj said, “and I started looking for answers about what happens after this life. From then on, through my college years, my emotions were up and down like a roller coaster.”
Zaj found it hard to talk about what was going on, and as he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus to study mechanical engineering, he continued to think about the life-and-death issues the loss of his brother had raised.
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he took the first step toward finding answers to his questions when he traveled to a weekend fraternity/ sorority event at Northern Illinois University during his junior year. There he was introduced to a young woman who attended the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus. In the weeks and months that followed, a long-distance relationship grew.
When Zaj went to visit, she invited him to her church—a small Filipino congregation in Chicago. He quickly realized that going to church would be a requirement of his new girlfriend and her family.
Even though he had no experience with Christianity other than a single visit to a church when he was very young, Zaj was willing to go—at first, for his girlfriend. But as Zaj made almost weekly trips to Chicago, that Filipino church became an important part of his weekend routine. What he was hearing made sense to him, and he kept returning to hear more.
“They were preaching about things I had been thinking about but hadn’t really understood,” Zaj says. He was surprised to learn that other people had the same big questions that were on his mind. And when they talked about grace, it made total sense to Zaj.
“I knew that I had been blessed by a lot of good things in my life—things I didn’t deserve: I could attend a good university on a full-tuition scholarship— an opportunity most people don’t get. The Pastor was saying that the only reason good things happen to you is because of God’s love and grace. So even though you do bad things, when God gives you good things you don’t deserve—that’s grace.”
For a long time Zaj had been pretty sure there must be a God. “Studying engineering, I felt like things did not just happen. There had to be an Engineer—a Creator.” But Zaj knew nothing about who God was.
A turning point—an experience that made all he was hearing more personal—came after his girlfriend’s mother gave him a CD and invited him to listen to it.
“I was almost afraid of it,” he says, “so even though she asked me about it many times, it took me about four months to finally pull it out and listen.”
Waking very early one morning with nothing to do, he saw the CD and wondered, What can it hurt?
He doesn’t remember the details, or even who the teacher was, but the message he heard was, “There is a God, and He loves you. He’s been there since the beginning, and He’ll be there at the end.”
Zaj felt the reality of God’s presence that morning in a way he will never forget. “Every time I remember that morning,” Zaj says, “it hits me all over again: there are a lot of fake things in this world, things that won’t last, but God’s love is so solid that you can’t break it, no matter what you do.
“I didn’t see God that morning,” he says, “but I knew He was there.”
A New Church
Not long after that, his girlfriend’s family, who live in Bartlett, started attending Wheaton Bible Church, and Zaj made the change as well. Traveling each week from his home on Chicago’s Northwest Side, he became a regular attender at Sunday-morning services.
Zaj was laser focused during the teaching time. Most memorable to him were the studies in the Gospel of Mark.
“That’s when I really understood who Jesus was and what He had done for me,” Zaj said.
After attending for several Sundays, Zaj decided it was time for him to go to the BEGIN class to learn more.
The speaker that day was Pastor Ted Coniaris, and after the session, Ted introduced himself and asked Zaj if they could meet sometime to talk. Zaj was a little uncertain, but a few weeks later he texted Ted and agreed to meet for breakfast.
“The first thing I remember is Ted asking me if I believed in Jesus,” Zaj recalls.
He remembers Ted drawing a diagram about how God had created a perfect world and then sin came and separated people from God. So God sent His Son, Jesus, so that we could enter God’s Kingdom, and one day the world would be perfect again.
“He asked me if I understood, and I told him I did—but I really didn’t,” Zaj admits. “He asked me to remember what he had written down, and the next time we met, he would have me draw it for him.”
Through the days that followed, Zaj found himself thinking about the drawing and about what Ted had said.
“I kept drawing that diagram,” Zaj said, “and at one point I thought, A perfect world? This is obviously not a perfect world. Then I thought about the idea of separation from God, and I got back to the idea of God loving us and sending His Son to die for our sins.”
Somewhere in that process, the truth really hit home: “No sane person would do that for someone else—send his son to die for someone else. It’s either crazy, or it’s real love—real compassion—for someone to do what needed to be done to save people from their sins.
“That kind of sealed the deal for me,” Zaj says. “That’s my God, and I was ready to pursue a relationship with Him.”
In the weeks and months that have followed, he has come to more fully understand what it means to place his trust in what God did for him by sending Jesus.
Sunday sermons and conversations with Ted and others have built on Zaj’s understanding of God’s love—unseen but solid—and opened his eyes to God’s grace—undeserved but freely given.
“I’m diving in,” Zaj says of his relationship with God. “I’m still cautious, but I’m learning to trust more and more.”
A Place to Serve
A desire to see others experience what God has done in his own life led Zaj to volunteer at Puente del Pueblo, traveling to West Chicago after work on Mondays to tutor students in the high school program. His specialties are math and science and the more technical subjects, he says.
“I love to tutor,” Zaj says, “but the students also want to talk about just about anything. I think I’m still a kid at heart, so I can really relate to the kids, laugh with them, and really be a friend to them.”
Zaj admits he has a lot of learning and growing to do, and he still doesn’t have all the answers to some of the big questions about life after death. But he has found the one answer that matters.
“I know,” he says, “that I will be loved.”