When Jesus Wasn’t Welcomed By St. Paul
by Tuan Pham
Born in North Vietnam, Tuan Pham moved to South Vietnam in 1955. Two decades later, he was imprisoned by the Communist regime for writing a book decrying their politics and for defending six Catholic priests being removed from their local parishes by Party officials. Released from custody in 1979, he knew his days as a free man were over. So he quietly packed his wife, 10 children, and some 90 other friends and relatives onto a small wooden boat and launched out with them into the South China Sea.
Two weeks and not a few miracles later, they landed in Galang, Indonesia, where Pham built a church for more than 5,000 fellow refugees before resettling in the United States in 1980. He and his family arrived in Rochester, Minnesota, eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, opened a grocery and gift shop, and joined a local church.
He retired eight years ago, purchased a home on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and began work on a long-cherished project: a backyard prayer garden. As a young man, Pham did some work as a sculptor, and one of his greatest personal achievements was helping to carve the famed statue of the Christ on Tau Phung Mountain near Vung Tau, Vietnam. At considerable personal expense, he commissioned a 15-foot replica of the statue he had made there in his old hometown, had it brought to the U.S., and erected it in his garden.
Not everyone was pleased.
I have always wanted to create a prayer garden, as soon as I had a yard big enough to make one properly. It would be my way of giving special thanks to God for saving my family and bringing us safely to the United States. It would be an expression of gratitude for all of His grace and blessings on my family across these many years.
Not long after I finished the garden (the statue was the finishing touch), I was surprised by a visit from a zoning inspector for the city of St. Paul. She asked to look at the garden, and told me the city had received an anonymous complaint about the statue of Jesus. Apparently, someone had told her they thought it was too tall, too ugly, and a danger to the neighborhood.
A few months later, the inspector sent me a letter saying my statue violated city ordinances, since it was located just 10 feet from the edge of the bluff. City law, she explained, says every "structure" has to be at least 40 feet back. That seemed strange. From my backyard, I could look in every direction and see plenty of other structures as close or closer to the edge of the bluff than mine: stone fences, park benches, even another statue—owned by the city itself.
So, I met with the inspector and other city officials. I pointed out the discrepancy between what they were enforcing with me and indulging for themselves. They told me I had no right to compare my property with anyone else’s, though I could ask for a variance. I did just that.
A month later, the Board of Zoning Appeals held a hearing. Several of my neighbors were kind enough to come out and support me, and I was able to present evidence of all those other structures that paralleled my property, violated the same city code, and yet were not being questioned or removed. Board members asked the inspector the reason for the 40-foot ordinance. She said she didn’t have one.
The board opted to delay its decision, pending further input from a local community group. That group made no recommendation. So, with no rationale from the zoning ordinance, vocal support from many of my neighbors (and no public objections from the rest), and a swath of exceptions all along the bluff to the very law to which I alone was being held accountable … the board voted to deny my variance application. They said I should have asked permission to set up the statue, and it worried them that I’d offered to let other people come into my garden to pray.
Board members asked the inspector the reason for the ordinance. She said she didn’t have one."
I appealed that decision to the St. Paul City Council. They gave me 15 minutes to speak, and let me present a petition of support signed by 45 of my neighbors—16 of whom were on hand to cheer for me. No one came to the meeting to express opposition. But the council refused to allow evidence that showed how so many of my neighbors and the city itself were all violating the same ordinance being enforced against me, and denied my appeal by a 5-2 vote.
A few days later, my wife was up early to get ready for church when, through the window, she saw our statue in flames. By the time firefighters arrived, the sculpture was badly damaged, and whoever set the fire had also broken off pieces of the adjacent sculpture.
After that, most of a year went by without another word from the city, until an article about my situation appeared in the local paper, noting that no official action had ever been taken. Within days, I received notice that my statue had to be removed within six months.
Still, after all this time, no one has given me a clear, official reason why my statue—alone of all the structures erected and maintained along the length of that Mississippi River bluff—has to be removed. But I have heard a clear, unofficial one. One of the city council members who voted against me is on public record as saying that, "We don’t want statues of religious or political figures on the bluffs."
I thought that was an interesting statement, coming from a councilman for a city called Saint Paul.
This spring—nearly two years after those frustrating conversations—the incredible happened. Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, the mayor of St. Paul drew on his executive authority over how and which city codes are enforced, and bypassed the city council to offer my family a deal that would allow us to keep our statue in place. I was so grateful that I had the settlement agreement bronzed! Now anyone pressuring us to take down the sculpture will know in no uncertain terms that our statue (which is now restored and good as new) is protected by the city.
I want people to look at our statue and know that Jesus Christ is Lord. And I want them to look at that bronzed document, and remember that this is a country where no matter how small, or poor, or outnumbered a man may be … he can still receive equal treatment before the law.