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Hmong American pastor shares lessons from a troubled early life

Teng Vu’s run-in with the law led him to turn his life around.

Teng Vu, a senior pastor at Freedom Through Christ Community Church in St. Paul, his wife, Nhia, and son, Jaedon.
Courtesy of Teng Vu

Twelve years ago, Teng Vu met his cousin for a get together: an armed robbery at a Walgreens store in Brooklyn Center.

At the time, Vu was 20 years old, and had been swimming in a sea of crime since he was a fifth-grader in Minneapolis, a trajectory that began with skipping school and using drugs before graduating to stealing cars and robbing people at gunpoint.

Even amid these perilous experiences, Vu knew that his behavior was nearly killing all the hopes and dreams his immigrant mother Me Yang Vu had envisioned for him.

“I was so sick and tired of that lifestyle,” said Vu, who was born in Minneapolis, but whose parents were both Hmong immigrants. “I just didn’t know how to get out of it. I didn’t know how to quit on drugs. But I knew I wanted to quit.”

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The armed robbery was an audacious attempt to secure cash that could buy him what he then wanted most: drugs. And his failure then turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

After the robbery was foiled, Vu was sent to the Hennepin County Jail, where he was detained for six months until he had his day in court. 

In jail, Vu placed a phone call to his mother — a call that sparked a profound conversation that would eventually turn him from the path he had been on for many years. “She told me that they had given up hope; that they didn’t know what to do anymore.”

And his mother told him to pray. “Pray?” Vu asked in a bewildered tone. “How do you pray?”

“Talk to God, just like you’re talking to me,” she replied.

So Vu got on his knees, asking God, “If you’re real, help me. I’m addicted to drugs. I’m addicted to sin. I don’t know how to quit. I want to quit. I want to be a good person. I don’t know how.”

Wendy Torkelson, of Minnesota Teen Challenge, a faith-based recovery program, began visiting Vu while he was detained at the county jail, then stood by his side throughout the trial process, urging the judge and prosecutors to give Vu another chance to turn his life around.

“She actually came to court when it was time to sentence me to five to 10 years in prison,” Vu recalled. “And she stood up in court and fought for me. And she told the judge to give me a chance.”

The judge granted her request, through he and the prosecutor predicted that Vu would go back to committing crimes in a matter of a week or two.

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Ordained as pastor

Immediately after his release, Vu participated in the yearlong Minnesota Teen Challenge program, which supported him through the drug recovery process and helped him stand on his feet. “From that point, I just knew that my life was going to be changed for the good.”

Indeed, Vu’s life has transformed. After the recovery program, he relocated in North Dakota, where he helped start a Teen Challenge program there. During the two and a half years he lived in North Dakota, he served as a choir director, instructor and counselor of the organization.

Vu later moved back to Minnesota, earned his bachelor’s degree in pastoral studies from North Central University in Minneapolis and got ordained as a pastor. At North Central, Vu met his wife, Nhia. The couple now lives in Roseville with their son, Jaedon.

Though Vu has been a pastor since 2009, he recently helped establish Freedom Through Christ Community Church, where he’s now a senior pastor. 

When Vu isn’t at the church or with his family, he’s often out speaking at youth events and sharing his story of survival and redemption. “I’m always talking about my past, sharing with people where I came from and where I’m at now.” 

He added: “Even when I’m not doing that, I’m thinking about that because I’m in awe, because I should be dead or be in prison. I feel grateful that God saved my life. He gave me a second chance, more like a third chance.” 

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.