|Phi-Phi and her mother at the beach, prior to 1974,|
Phi-Phi got word in February of 1990—just weeks before her father’s stroke—that her mother was finally able to leave Vietnam and had flown to Germany. She was sponsored by her father (Phi-Phi’s maternal grandfather), who had been sponsored (along with his second wife and their children) by other relatives back in the ’70’s, and had been paving the way for her for more than a decade.
Not having seen her mother in 12 years, Phi-Phi wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this news. She loved her mother, and she was grateful for her safe arrival in Germany, reunited with her father. But her mother had been absent for nearly all of Phi-Phi’s growing-up years, and Phi-Phi had no way to get herself to Germany. Phi-Phi also no longer spoke much Cantonese (her parents’ native tongue), so the language barrier heightened an already-existing emotional barrier. Their relationship was still suffering from the ravages of war.
When her father went into the hospital, Phi-Phi reached out instead to her former Young Women’s leader, Sister Corinne Blair, who served back in their congregation in Virginia. It didn’t matter that she was 3,000 miles away. They had been in touch and written letters back and forth over the past two years, and even chatted a few times.
Sister Blair, in the absence of Phi-Phi’s mother, had been a strong maternal influence in Phi-Phi’s life, and they spoke from time to time when Phi-Phi needed to talk about high school and boyfriend woes, longing for a mother’s input. Despite the mounting long-distance charges which Phi-Phi covered herself—not even a factor in today’s cellphone era—she reached out to Sister Blair via telephone. She needed some immediate assistance. She explained that her dad was in the hospital, in a coma, and she had nowhere to turn.
Miraculously, Corinne Blair had a relative who was living in California, not far from where Phi-Phi was living. She had already reached out to this relative and expressed her concern for Phi-Phi. This relative for some reason knew who the bishop in the area was: Ray Lowry. She called Bishop Lowry and told him about Phi-Phi.
Phi-Phi had gone to school with Bishop Lowry’s sons, Jake and Joe Lowry. She even sat next to Joe in her A. P. Economics/Government class. But since Phi-Phi hadn’t been attending church, she had no idea their dad was the bishop.
Three days before Phi-Phi’s father entered the hospital, on March 25, 1990, an inspired Bishop Lowry stood up and announced in a priesthood meeting that there was a senior girl at San Gabriel High School in need of some care and a place to live.
Douglass Staheli heard the announcement and instantly thought they should offer to take her into their home. But when he approached his wife, Margie, about the idea, she gave him a flat “no.” All of their children were grown, and they had a few grandchildren. Margie was in her early fifties, working full-time, serving in a leadership capacity at church, and feeling completely overwhelmed. Doug patiently invited her to pray about it.
At first Margie prayed half-heartedly, with her mind closed off to any answers because she only wanted to say no. She experienced a great deal of internal turmoil over whether or not they should take in this child who was a refugee and a complete stranger. But as the days wore on, Margie’s will began to soften.
Meanwhile, Bishop Lowry got on his knees and prayed to Heavenly Father to help him find a couple or a family that Phi-Phi could live with. Her father was now in the hospital, an hour away in Orange County, in a coma. The situation was urgent, the need was dire.
Bishop Lowry arranged for Phi-Phi to meet Doug and Margie Staheli the evening of Thursday, March 29. That afternoon Margie poured out her whole heart and soul in prayer, explaining that she couldn’t do this, she was exhausted, but if God wanted them to take in this child, please give her some sort of sign so she’d know it was His will. As soon as she got up off her knees, the doorbell rang. It was Phi-Phi.
Margie opened the door and the minute she saw Phi-Phi her heart was flooded with joy. This was her answer. She knew in that instant that Phi-Phi had always been destined for their home, that this was a daughter she never gave birth to, but was always meant to have. She wrapped her arms around Phi-Phi and hugged her—the warmest and tightest hug Phi-Phi had ever received.
Reflecting on this experience, Margie says to be careful which challenges we shy away from—sometimes the greatest blessings are unexpected, inconvenient, and come in the least-shiny packages. Phi-Phi has been a total joy to their family ever since that first meeting, 25 years ago.
Phi-Phi moved in with the Stahelis that Sunday— April 1, 1990. Her father passed away five days later, on April 6—just ten weeks before her high school graduation. The Stahelis became her de-facto parents and their house became her new home.
Read part 8 here.