Where would you run for cover and whom would you take with you if you woke up tomorrow and the world had come to an end? Ask Pastor Tom Pham and his minis- try team these questions and they’ll tell you exactly what they would do – that is, running to God for cover and taking with them as many lives as possible.
It is this spirit that brought Pastor Tom, Pastor Loc, and Sister Kim to San Quentin many years ago. They have traveled a long distance; for Pastor Loc, it is an hour-long drive. Each owns a small business and has so many errands to run, but every Thursday, rain or shine, they find them- selves sitting side by side with the men inside San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel, leading and teaching a Bible study group. Even on Thanksgiving Thursdays, when his house is full of guests, Pastor Tom sneaks out and comes to San Quentin to worship God with the men.
Guest speakers are often invited from different parts of the world. They come from Texas, Arizona, Vietnam, and Germany to speak with the men.
“Attending the Bible study group while I was in San Quentin has enabled me to share with others. The group was so warm and welcoming. I felt like I was not alone. It got me closer to God,” said David Le, who paroled in July 2019.
Since his release, Le obtained a job in accounting. He continues to attend college and reconnect with his father. Nonetheless, Le still finds the time to attend Pastor Tom’s church regularly. The lives that Pastor Tom and his ministry team have led have inspired Le to serve and give back to the community. “I recently volunteered to direct traffic at this year’s annual event in Oakland’s China-town, and I have also been volunteering at the Second Chance Life ministry group in San Francisco, where Pastor Tom presides,” said Le.
Gary Vong, another former Bible study student, reflected, “Attending the Bible study group at San Quentin has helped strengthen my faith in God.” Paroled from San Quentin more than a year ago, Vong has continued to receive strong love and support from the church. “With Pastor Tom, the difference is, he is doing it out of his love for God,” said Vong.
Earlier this year, even while he was still on parole, but at Pastor Tom’s invitation, Vong was able to travel to Seattle to give a testimony at a conference. He shared with the crowd how God changed him while he was incarcerated. “Many people were willing to receive my message with joy. The trip was great, and I needed that,” Vong recalled appreciatively.
When a member of his min- istry brothers is released from prison, Pastor Tom voluntarily takes a day off and picks him up at the gate. Pastor Tom then takes him out for his favorite dish as his first meal and spends some time with him. Financial support is also given at the church’s expense.
What happens next is expected to fall into the magical hands of the fashionista, Sister Kim, who will then take the brother out shop- ping for new clothes. For those that have no taste for tight pants or for whom own- ing a pair of baggy pants is a matter of life or death, Sister Kim’s message to them is, “good luck.” “Stores no longer sell baggy pants these days. If you really want them, you will have to look really hard,” Sister Kim not- ed playfully.
Finally, if the brother doesn’t speak or read English well, Pastor Loc will provide him with a Bible in his native language. And not just any bible, but the best one out there. “When you give for God, you got to give the best,” said Pastor Loc.
Over the years, more than 15 formerly incarcerated Bible study students have been added to Pastor Tom’s church. For those who had no family or nowhere to go, Pastor Tom often opened up his home, offering a temporary place for them to stay until they were able to get back on their feet.
All have been working very hard to rebuild their lives. They rekindle positive family relationships with their loved ones. Many volunteer to serve and give back to the community and assist in the Second Chance Life ministry group in San Francisco that Pastor Tom teaches. None has returned to prison.
Today, Pastor Tom’s church is mostly filled with formerly incarcerated men. For some church members, this causes them to feel uncomfortable and to stop attending church. “Even with Christians, some can be very unforgiving; all we can do is pray for them,” said Pastor Tom.
Many brothers inside San Quentin are looking forward to someday soon attending Pastor Tom’s church. They speak of it with such resolve that it is certain their plans will come to fruition. “Prior to attending the Bible study group, my original plan was to parole to Sacramento, but now I will parole to San Francisco just so I can be a member in Pastor Tom’s church,” said Inmate Vadim Zakharchenko, who had a change of heart. Zakharchenko further told San Quentin News that he has not yet made his plan known to his mother and that she is go- ing to be “pissed” when she finds out about it later.
Pastor Tom, Pastor Loc, and Sister Kim not only have been consistently exhibiting God’s love by showing up every Thursday, but also by working tirelessly to turn many lives around both inside and outside San Quentin. Their words and actions have tremendously touched and affected many lives. Their sacrifices cannot be overstated, and they will, just as the Bible says, continue to serve as the salt and the light of the world for others for many years to come.