Located in the heart of Grays Ferry, The Salvation Army’s Central Corps serves an increasingly diverse population of neighbors. Many worlds converge here as immigrants from Thailand, China, Laos, Vietnam, Burma, and Haiti, build new lives alongside African- and Anglo-Americans. The working-class neighborhood has a history of racial tension and violence. In the southwest pocket of the city where American freedom was born exists a microcosm reflective of the critical issues facing not just Philadelphians, but the rest of our country.
Two people bringing The Salvation Army cadre of community-building programs and services are Majors Bounmy and Manivene Luangamath. Though retired from The Salvation Army since 2008, the couple continue to serve God using their life experience to minister to others. As immigrants and refugees themselves, Majors Luangamath have an understanding and perspective uniquely applicable in this era of division, exclusion, and distrust.
From 1976–78, Bounmy and Manivene were high school teachers and busy with raising their young children in the communist nation of Laos in Southeast Asia. As oppression and fear increased under communism, Bounmy formed a plan for escape. Noticing that the number of soldiers on patrol decreased during lunchtime, when the clock struck 12:30 p.m. on April 19, 1980, Bounmy and his family snuck away to the bank of the Mekong River and into a small canoe meant to hold 2–3 people. He strategically placed his mother and one-year-old in the front of the boat while Manivene, who was three months pregnant, held their three-year-old in the middle. With his four-year-old son in front of him in the rear of the boat, Bounmy began to paddle across the river to Thailand and freedom. If captured by Laotian soldiers before crossing the middle of the river and into the safety of Thai waters, death was certain. Bounmy knew this, and sat in the rear of the boat, hoping to protect his family as a human shield in the event of gunfire.
The family were close to the invisible line in the river where Laos ends and Thailand begins, when a group of four Laotian military police armed with AK-47 rifles spotted them and quickly reached their canoe. In a frantic struggle, one officer grabbed the rear of the canoe causing the front to raise vertically out of the water. Bounmy used his oar to push the officer away while at the same time desperately working to keep the overloaded canoe from capsizing as the officers raised their weapons and their voices, promising to shoot if Bounmy didn’t turn back. With just a few yards to go, Bounmy and his family could also hear Thai and U.S. soldiers on the opposite bank of the Mekong yelling at them to, “Keep coming! Keep coming! ” Amid the shouting, desperate maneuvering, and frenzied paddling, Bounmy heard another voice telling him, “Go forward, do not turn back, I will go with you and protect you.”
When they stepped onto a riverbank of safety, the young family was welcomed into Thailand’s Liberty Refugee Camp where they remained for several months. Both Bounmy and Manivene spoke some English and could help with volunteer efforts as translators. It was there that Bounmy met a Salvation Army Captain who helped them and introduced him to God. Their youngest child was born in the refugee camp and Bounmy and Manivene were born into a life with Christ. The following March, a relative in Hawaii sponsored the family to emigrate to the United States.
At the time, Bounmy and Manivene didn’t know that when they risked their lives for a better life, they would be welcomed by Christ who sacrificed his life for their eternal salvation. In Hawaii, Bounmy volunteered for The Salvation Army and began what would become a lifetime of service with the organization. When the Luangamaths later moved to California, they met Majors Roger and Svea Malmberg who encouraged them to enroll in The Salvation Army as soldiers. From there, the Luangamaths moved to Seattle, Washington, where Bounmy served as director of The Salvation Army’s Southeast Asian Service Center and Outpost, and the couple established the first Laotian corps. After transferring to Philadelphia, Manivene became ill and doctors were not optimistic about her recovery. In 2008 both Majors retired from active duty and Bounmy focused on caring for his wife of more than 42 years.
Gradually Manivene’s health improved and Bounmy began to resume serving through The Salvation Army the same way he started: as a volunteer. At Central Corps, he helps with the growing service center that provides senior programs, transitional housing services, hunger relief efforts, youth activities, worship, and a developing partnership with the Philadelphia Police Athletic League.
Bounmy ministers to everyone—educating them about U.S. laws, listening to their fears of deportation, and sharing God’s message of love, hope, compassion, and service. When asked how he counsels immigrants and helps promote unity and acceptance in the community, without hesitation he explained that we are all brothers, sisters, and family because we are God’s children.
Earlier this year, Bounmy shared his family’s incredible escape in a sermon he delivered at Central Corps. In his sermon, Bounmy reflected on the scripture from the book of Hebrews, an echo of the words spoken to him by God on the Mekong River 37 years ago. “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (Hebrews 10: 35-36).
“We pray for blessings, protection and trust in the Lord,” said Bounmy. “We do not have to worry because God is with us and we are one family of brothers and sisters— not just here (in this neighborhood) or in this country, but around the world.”