Tom Glasoe

The Rev. Tom Glasoe, the new pastor at Follmer and St. John’s Lutheran churches, spent his early years growing up as an orphan in Vietnam.

MILTON — The scars which mark the Rev. Tom Glasoe’s head serve as reminders of the abuses he suffered at the hands of other children while spending his early years as an orphan in post-war Vietnam.

Glasoe, who has no way of tracing his biological parents, believes his father could have been a U.S. soldier who had served in Vietnam during the war. Glasoe looked different than the other children at the orphanages where he lived, and suffered because of it.

“(The other children) had never seen a blue-eyed white person before,” he said. “I was a painful reminder for why those kids were there. They hated me… The scars on my head testify to the abuse I had at the hands of those kids.”

Glasoe was installed Sunday as the new pastor for Follmer Lutheran Parish, which consists of Follmer Lutheran Church on Grange Hall Road near Milton and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Potts Grove.

In spite of the horrors he experienced growing up, Glasoe felt drawn to ministry at an early age.

“I always felt called to the ministry,” he said. “I felt my life in Vietnam… there had to be some purpose to it.”

Glasoe was born in Vietnam, one week after the war ended.

“I was abandoned at birth, somewhere in the streets of Saigon,” he said. “I was recued by good Samaritans. I was given my (Vietnamese) name, Tri Huu Nguyen.”

Glasoe has memories of living at three different orphanages in Vietnam.

“My second orphanage, it was run by, if not nuns, then very religious ladies,” he said. “I was there from the earliest of my memories until I was 8.”

But Glasoe was older than the other children at the orphanage.

“Most of their work was taking orphans off the streets,” he recalled. “I remember… watching a woman give up her baby.”

He distinctly recalls that woman wailing as she turned her baby over to the women who ran the orphanages.

Glasoe remembers the women who operated the orphanage as being very loving.

“They instructed me in the Christian faith,” he said. “I was the oldest child in a sea of infants. (The women) often told me I did not belong in Vietnam… They said I needed to go to the land of milk and Spam.”

Glasoe believes the women kept him at the orphanage much longer than the other children there in order to protect him.

“Vietnam is a very racial society,” he said. “They kept me there as long as they could (to protect me from abuse).”

When he turned 8, Glasoe had outgrown the services the women could provide and was transferred to a state-run orphanage.

“That was the lowest point of my existence,” he said, noting that he was severely abused at the hands of other children at the orphanage.

“I started praying to go to the land of milk and Spam,” he said.

Most of the other children were at the orphanage because their parents were killed during the Vietnam War or because their parents were unable to earn a living after the war and abandoned their children.

“The American forces used so much chemical warfare, it made the land infertile,” Glasoe said, adding that families were unable to grow rice and other crops to earn a living.

“(Vietnam) may have won the war, but they lost their economy,” he said.

Seeing Glasoe was a reminder to the other Vietnamese children of what had happened in their country while at war with the United States.

Like most of the children at the orphanage, Glasoe had little hope for the future.

At age 12, he said Vietnamese orphans were transferred into the military.

“In 1987, when I would’ve turned 12, the Vietnamese were fighting the Cambodians,” Glasoe said. “It was a dire existence. You had no hope. You had no future.

“The only hope I had was in this unknown God to me,” he continued. “I clung to whatever hope I had.”

But children at the orphanage were forbidden from having any type of religious material.

One of the children particularly stood out for Glasoe.

“I refer to him as ‘Fonzie,’” he said, referring to the character in the classic television show. “He gave the impression he didn’t have a future. But he had charm and he had charisma… He was the only child at the orphanage who chose to be my friend. He taught me how to exist there.”

One day, “Fonzie” was running around the orphanage “panic stricken” as he learned the head master was about to conduct an inspection.

“He said he was hiding all of his stuff,” Glasoe said. “(The head master) was looking for any religious stuff the kids may own.”

If the children were caught with religious material, they were sent to do manual labor. Fortunately, Glasoe said “Fonzie” was able to hide all of his religious material.

“It surprised me how many kids were caught having religious material,” Glasoe said. “You would not see them again.”

In 1982, Glasoe said the U.S. government passed a resolution that it would bring children fathered by GIs in Vietnam to the United States.

“That figure was in the six digits,” he said of the number of children born to Vietnamese women and fathered by GIs from the U.S.

“By the end of August (1983), I received word I was being transferred to another place,” Glasoe said. “I found out I was being transferred to another country. My heart leapt.”

He ended up being fostered by the Glasoe family in Minnesota.

Glasoe laughs that his prayer to go to the “land of milk and Spam” was specifically answered.

“Spam is made in Minnesota,” he said.

The family also took in four other children who were Vietnamese orphans.

In his new home, Glasoe quickly learned English.

“My family was Lutheran,” he noted. “I was instructed in the Christian Lutheran faith and I embraced it wholeheartedly… I really got involved in church as a youth.”

It was while watching the Whoopie Goldberg film “Sister Act” that Glasoe knew he was to enter the ministry.

“That was the story of transformation,” he said. “You can be somebody not so great and God will work with you.

“The power of ministry is, not only are you transformed… people and things around you get transformed, for the good,” Glasoe continued. “I think everybody wants to be transformed, to some degree.”

Glasoe graduated from St. Olaf College, and earned his Master of Divinity degree in 2002 from St. Paul Lutheran Seminary in Minnesota.

The first church he served was in Gerard, near Erie. While there, Glasoe met his wife, Rachael. The couple now has an 11-month-old son, Jackson.

He has spent the last 10 years serving churches in Houston and Central Texas. The Glasoes moved to Central Pennsylvania about a month ago to serve the congregations and to be closer to Rachel’s family.

Tom is excited to be serving the two churches.

“What drew me to these two congregations was the opportunity to be in the lives of the members,” he said. “The big motivation for my ministry is to be the congregant’s pastor. To be there in their darkest times, in their best times, and to walk with them.”

While he has not returned to Vietnam since he left the country as a child, Glasoe hopes to return someday with his family, when his son is older.

Worship service is held at 9 a.m. Sundays at Follmer Lutheran Church, followed by Sunday school at 10:15. At St. John’s Lutheran Church, Sunday school begins at 9:15 a.m., followed by worship at 10:30.

Staff writer Kevin Mertz can be reached at 570-742-9671 or email kevin@standard-journal.com.

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