Vanna In Finds Freedom Behind Bars
By Audra Smith
The 700 Club
The “In” family, with their 6 children, moved to Houston, TX in 1978 as Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War. Their youngest son, Vanna, was only 3. Growing up, Vanna found America was less a place of refuge and more a place of fear.
“We didn’t understand the language,” Vanna said. “We didn’t understand the culture. We were told by our neighbors and our classmates, in colorful language, to go home, go back to our country, we’re not wanted here.
Outside the home, Vanna faced racism. Inside the home, he was a victim of domestic violence.
“If we did something wrong it would usually lead to physical and verbal abuse,” Vanna said. “As I got older I started looking for trouble. And I didn’t know where this anger came from; I didn’t know how to vent it.”
When the family moved to California in 1992, Vanna took his anger to the streets of Fresno. His older brother joined an Asian gang and Vanna soon followed.
“We were very, very close,” Vanna said. “I always saw him as a tough guy, a guy that you didn’t want to mess with. It was something to do. It was something to be a part of. We have camaraderie, we-we do everything together. We lived that code of, ‘we will even die for each other, or die for the gang.’ We robbed, and we fought and we stole. I mean, we did everything.”
In 1993, Vanna was deep in the gang life and attended a gang peace party, where several rival gangs got together to call a truce.
“When I saw my enemies it was like I was a bull and I saw red,” Vanna said. “I totally ignored the whole purpose of me going there and I used that time to bring glory to my gang. I did that by cussing them out, telling them who I was, and this is who we are. One of the rival gang members, they got tired to it, and so he gave me a good punch in the face.”
“Then we left the scene of the party,” Vanna said. “We finally got ahold of about two guns and we went back and shot the place up.”
Vanna and fellow gang members shot up the party in a “drive-by” and murdered a rival gang member. Authorities arrested Vanna in 1994, and tried him as an adult. Vanna was convicted of second degree murder.
“I thought about my life like, ‘Why am I in this place? How did I get to this point where I’m facing 30 years to life? [I got] 25 for the murder and 5 years for the gun possession. I said, ‘How did I get here?’”
While incarcerated, Vanna started looking for answers in his cultural religion of Buddhism.
“I was like, ‘Well, you know what, it’s maybe because I wasn’t true to Buddha’” Vanna said. “ I didn’t follow Buddha all the way.”
“I visited the temple every other weekend just to help get my life back in order, but, there was no power in Buddhism,” Vanna said. “I mean, I was searching for it. I was trying to get up, but I couldn’t.”
During this time, Vanna’s cellmate began to tell him about Jesus.
“He knew at the time, that I was searching for peace,” Vanna said. “And he just told me about the love of God. And I told him about Buddha. And so we would have these religious dialogues.
“He would just tell me about how Jesus came on the cross to die for me and how by Him being the perfect sacrifice, He was able to forgive the sins of the world,” Vanna said. “And so that stuck out to me.”
A prison chaplain also started bringing Vanna books about former gang members who gave their lives to Jesus Christ.
“The first book that I remember was God’s Prison Gang,” Vanna said. “Then I read about Al Capone’s Getaway Driver and in reading Al Capone’s Getaway Driver is where I read a verse, John Chapter 15, Verse 16. The verse went ‘For you did not choose me, but I chose you.’”
These people who have committed crimes more heinous than I, some of them are robbers, thieves, and a lot of them were murderers,” Vanna said. “They knew the grace of Jesus. I read about the grace of Jesus and how Jesus met them in their prison cell and their jail cell and He just forgave them. I’m thinking, ‘Wow. If God can forgive them, if and if God sent Jesus to die for them, He did it for me.’”
“So I woke up the brother that was witnessing to me for the last few months and I said, ‘Hey Gabriel, I want to give my life to God.’”
“From there I was excited,” Vanna said. “I was excited because now I knew that something as special as the gift of salvation should not be bottled up. And so I just started telling everybody about Jesus.”
After becoming a Christian, Vanna renounced his gang ties. He was able to strike a plea bargain and was moved the California Youth Authority until he was 25 years old. In 2001, Vanna was released.
“Jesus gave me the power to walk away,” Vanna said. “Jesus gave me the power to give my allegiance to Him and not to a gang that brought nothing but heartache and pain. And so that’s how I was able, through Christ, leave the gang life. “
Today, Vanna is married and with a son, and works as a pastor and youth counselor in the same neighborhood in Fresno, that he used to terrorize as a gang member.
“Those that have been hurt, if they want to be released from all the venom and the pain that they have, it’s not going to go away holding onto it, Vanna said. “The only way they can have true healing is through Jesus Christ.”
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