Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles in the Humans of Wausau series, which is funded in part through a grant from the B. A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation. Follow the Humans of Wausau Facebook page here.

By Kelli Oligney for Wausau Pilot and Review

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Yaou Yang, 39

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I was born in a refugee camp called Ban Vinai in Thailand, but I was conceived in Laos. I am Hmong and because I am Hmong, my parents had been living in Laos their entire life and during the Vietnam war. In 1973, when the war went south, my parents knew they could no longer live in Laos; they needed to escape. Before I was born, I had three older siblings and in the time frame where my parents decided they needed to leave Laos to get into the refugee camps of Thailand, all my older three siblings passed away. I was conceived in Laos and my mom was pregnant with me while running through the jungles of Laos being chased by the North Vietnamese Communist Regime. My mom had the great burden to realize that over 30,000 Hmong people died because of that conflict and if my mom was one of those, not only would she die, but the child inside her would also pass away too. Thankfully, by the grace of God, they were able to make it through and were able to get into the refugee camps in Thailand.

When did you transition from the refugee camp in Thailand to the United States?

We lived in the refugee camp for seven years and in 1987 our family was granted permission by the United States government to come to the United States. Prior to us coming, my parents had relatives that were living in Merrill and these Yang relatives were willing to sponsor our family to come here. Because of that, the first community we lived in was in Merrill. My family lived there for about a year and then our relatives wanted to move to North Carolina. For my parents, that was too big of a transition since they just left Southeast Asia a year earlier. My parents thought it would be too big of a move so my family decided to move to Wausau and I have been calling this my community ever since.

Do you remember your time spent in Thailand?

I would say it’s vague memories, but I remember a lot of impoverished conditions and not having enough food, education, and shelter; It was a third world refugee camp growing up in complete poverty.

What keeps you in the Wausau community?

Central Wisconsin has a kind and caring community. For example, when I was growing up, we lived in poverty and didn’t have a lot. I would remember many years that we weren’t able to celebrate Christmas. Thankfully, my ELL (English Language Learner) teacher, the one who taught me how to speak English, realized there was this Hmong family not able to celebrate this American Christmas; we didn’t have Christmas presents or anything like that. One year, before Christmas break, my teacher said, “Why don’t you and your family come over to our house and we can celebrate Christmas together.” We went over to her house and I learned that Americans like to bake cookies. I didn’t know that before and at the end of the day she said, “Why don’t you guys come over here to the Christmas tree because there’s presents with your name on it; go and find yours.” I truly remember the first time I finally opened my own Christmas present with my name on it. From that young age, I realized that here in America, when Caucasians care about you and love you, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin. They are willing to pour out their love to you and as a Hmong American, I don’t have to only hang out and love my Hmong people, but in America, we love all people regardless of what they look like on the outside. Because of that, I have come to know that especially in Wisconsin, there are very kind people that make me feel like this is my home even though I’m a refugee from Thailand.

How did you become a pastor? Was it a path you always wanted to follow?

I didn’t. When I grew up, I had different aspirations. I went to an all-Hmong church my entire life. After I graduated high school, my wife and I dated for a month and a half and then got married and had already been accepted to go to school at UW-Stevens Point. During that time, I was watching a lot of news and saw Connie Chung. I thought, “Connie Chung is Asian and I’m Asian. Perhaps, I could be the next Connie Chung.” I went to college for a communications major because I wanted to go into television broadcasting. A year later, September 11th happened and I thought a lot about that event. How dare these middle eastern terrorists come to the United States to destroy “bad Americans” when growing up I realized Americans aren’t bad and most Americans I know are very kind people! I wondered what I as an individual could do even though I came over as a refugee and because of that, I could legally and permanently live here in the United States, but I was not a full-fledged American citizen; I could not vote. I thought about joining the military and talked it over with my wife and family and they all said, “No, don’t do it. We just plucked you out of the Vietnam war.” Things were ramping up during that time after September 11th for us to go to war in the Middle East. My parents said, “We already buried three dead children because of a war and we don’t want to bury another one.”

All of those were very legitimate reasons, but in my heart, I felt that I am an American and the right thing to do would be to sign up and enlist in the military even though I didn’t have my U.S. citizenship papers. In my heart, my citizenship is not a piece of paper to tell me that I’m an American; my patriotism is what told me, “I’m an American and this is the right thing to do.” In 2002, I signed up for the Wisconsin Army National Guard and in 2003, I went to boot camp down in Fort Benning, Georgia. From 2004 to 2005, I was activated to go and fight in Iraq at Operation Iraqi Freedom. We got into the country of Iraq in December of 2004 and on December 26th, we were on a routine night mission in Samarra, Iraq. Samarra was so dangerous because the insurgents kept planting IED’s which are the Improvised Explosive Devices to try to kill the indigenous population or the US Servicemen. Every night, we would have to patrol the streets to make sure nothing bad was going to happen.

On a particular night when we went out, we didn’t know, but they had a bomb in the street and we didn’t know it. We walked close enough to it and I was the number three man from the front and my Sargent, was the number one man in the front. We got close enough to the IED and they detonated it and my sergeant ended up passing away just a few yards from where I was. That was a very life changing experience for me coming so close to death and I realized that there must be a higher power; which I call God to protect me from that night. Throughout that year, there continued to be more events that would almost take my life away, but every time, I would get through it. I realized I wanted to live and didn’t want to die, but there was nothing I could do to save myself; it’s only God that could save me. I made a deal with God and said, “Hey God, if you can get my butt out of Iraq alive, when I come back to Wausau, I’ll do whatever you want me to do. I just have to get out of here alive.” By the end of 2005, my unit, which was out of Neillsville, Wisconsin, came back with 23 out of 25 guys; we lost two of our guys.

When I came back from the war, I was very different and changed. I was diagnosed with PTSD and wasn’t a good person when I came back from war. I realized I didn’t want to be a television broadcaster anymore and I realized in Iraq that I had a great love of children. Coming back to the United States, I asked myself, “What can I do with my love of children?” I had a passion for children and history so I put both of those together and in 2008, I graduated with a teaching degree to become a Secondary Social Studies teacher. I ended up teaching the DC Everest Middle School as a 6th grade Social Studies teacher, but in the back of my mind I still knew I wanted to do something for God because that was my promise to him.

Ten years later, I finally got the knock at the door. I asked God, “What do you want me to do?” Strangely enough, that year, a Hmong pastor and a Caucasian pastor asked me if I’d ever consider church planting. I didn’t know what it was, but they said it was where you started your own church. I’ve always been a trailblazer my entire life and do things out of the norm. When I signed up for the service, there were not many Hmong people that had signed up. God has wired me to be different and if I was to be a pastor, I wanted to start up a different church. I thought it would be really cool to start a multi-ethnic church here in Wausau where it doesn’t matter the color of skin, but can all worship together. God is our Father and we are all his children and we should all be able to worship together regardless of our skin color. January of 2016, I started the church called, “The Cross” It’s multi-ethnic and non-denominational. Since I didn’t have a church building, I started the church in my house. A year later, we outgrew my house and moved to the North side of town. Another year later, we outgrew that space and have been here for about two years.

Today, the members of our church consist of individuals that are homeless, released from jail, unemployed, or have addiction issues. Twice a week, I go to the Marathon County Jail and do a bible study with the inmates to give them hope. Some of the inmates get released from jail and come to the church still hoping for someone to steer them in a better direction so they don’t continually end up returning to jail. “The Cross” consists of a down-and-out marginalized population of those that who have great needs in our community.

How many members do you have at “The Cross?”

Just last month, we ended up celebrating our four year anniversary. If everyone came, we would have over 90 people. It’s been a blessing because when the church started, we had about 20 members.

What qualities does it take to be a pastor?

Since I work with a down and out population and we are a different church, I think the greatest quality is an individual that is full of grace, understanding, and patience. A lot of people struggle with addiction in the population I work with, and sometimes society will tell the individual, “You just have to stop doing the drugs and let it go!” For some individuals that have been addicted to either alcohol or drugs for so many years or decades, for us to be ignorant and tell them they just have to stop, it’s a lot more difficult than that. In my position as the pastor of this church, I work with a population that struggles out in the streets. It is important to provide the spirit of grace, understanding, forgiveness, and welcome them into the church regardless of how many times they have stumbled in the past to give them hope.

If you had advice to give anyone, what would it be?

For a lot of us, we have been blessed with so many great things and I believe it’s important, especially in central Wisconsin, to have a serving heart to be able to help others; If we can do that, we should. The reason I say that is because when I was little, I didn’t have a lot and there were people that were willing to love and help me and were there to serve me so I could be given an opportunity to better my life. Because of their willingness to give and support me, I have been blessed because of their good deeds. Now, I am trying to pay back the love I have been shown and to commit to serve and help others.

Do you have any children?

I have six. The oldest is 12 and the youngest is 4. They keep me busy and I work for the D.C. Everest school district full time. Every Sunday, we do an offering at church, but since people that come to my church are poor, the offerings are very little so there’s no way my church, “The Cross” is able to support a full time pastor. I have to work a full time job to do my ministry job that I love to do.

What are your favorite memories from living in Wausau?

My favorite memories are related to school. The reason I say that is because I believed school to be the social equalizer. I hated going back home because going back home reminded me of how poor we were. I grew up living in a two bedroom, upstairs duplex and there were 11 of us. I am the oldest of 9 kids. I’d see cockroaches running around and have to share one bedroom with all my siblings. Our living conditions were horrendous and the best memories were at school being involved in sports and clubs. Being involved at school made me forget how poor I was because I got to participate in different activities. When I went back home, it reminded me of how poor we were.

What changes would you like to see in the community in the next five years?

I would love for our community to be able to give more resources to individuals that are down and out; I believe we have a big AODA issue. I think we need more transitional living environments that could help individuals getting out of incarceration and homelessness. We don’t have enough resources to surround those individuals that have that need to have a new chapter in their life. For some individuals, if they have been incarcerated for over a year, in that year time, they have lost their job, apartment, and may have lost their family. When they get released, where are they supposed to start? There’s a lack of resources to help those that are downtrodden.

If you had advice to give anyone, what would it be?

For a lot of us, we have been blessed with so many great things and I believe it’s important, especially in central Wisconsin, to have a serving heart to be able to help others; If we can do that, we should. The reason I say that is because when I was little, I didn’t have a lot and there were people that were willing to love and help me and were there to serve me so I could be given an opportunity to better my life. Because of their willingness to give and support me, I have been blessed because of their good deeds. Now, I am trying to pay back the love I have been shown and to commit to serve and help others.

What’s your favorite quote?

“Be happy.” Life is really short and sometimes we get caught up in the stresses of the world and we forget to enjoy the moment and the ability to enjoy the sunshine. We get so focused on the negativity and need to be more happy.