(First published in the January 31, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Yauo Yang is a war veteran and founder of probably the most diverse church in Wausau. He now has set his sights on creating a homeless center, and people say that if anyone can do it, it’s Yang
Yauo Yang in his office of The Cross church, located in the YWCA building in Wausau. He founded the church in 2016 to keep a promise to God for keeping him alive during his combat tour in Iraq in 2004.
In 2004, Yauo Yang was on a routine patrol in the city of Samarra in Iraq. He was the third man back on his Wisconsin National Guard patrol unit.
Like many, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 inspired him to join the service. But this was rare among Hmong men, Yang says; many told him to sit this one out.
Yang was undeterred. Coming from a refugee camp in Thailand to America, Yang was never shy about blazing a new path. In school, while other Hmong students tended to stay together, Yang joined all the extra curricular activities he could, often as the only Hmong student in the group.
On that night in Iraq, he found himself in a dangerous city past curfew, weapon in hand when an improvised explosive device, known as an IED, exploded. Yang lost hearing in his right ear, the result of a ruptured ear drum. The soldier at the front of the patrol, their staff sergeant from Loyal, became the second Wisconsin National Guard soldier to die in the war.
“You walk away from that experience and all of the sudden you realize that your buddy you were just talking to, you will never see him again,” Yang says. “I came that close to dying as well. All the sudden your faith becomes very real. People say there are no atheists in a foxhole.”
The realization that he could easily die in this place hit him hard. “I made a deal with God,” Yang says. “If you get me out of Iraq alive, when I come back to Wausau, whatever you want me to do, I will do for you.”
Yang for the past few years has been doing just that. He founded a non-denominational, multi-ethnic church; he regularly feeds those without enough to eat; he and his church members help those without shelter find housing. Yang is on a mission: to create a full homeless center for every person in the area who needs food, shelter and clothing. As members of his church and community leaders say, if anyone can pull off such a project, Yang can.
Yang sits in his church office in the YWCA building in Wausau on a Monday afternoon. There’s a fireplace, some inspirational decor on the wall, and a tapestry made by a Hmong artists depicting the Christian story. Yang is one of about 10% of the Hmong community who are Christian, the result of missionaries visiting southeast Asia.
Yang’s quiet confidence is hard to deny. He’s also probably the busiest person around town.
Three years ago, Yang, 38, founded The Cross, a non-denominational church aiming to attract a diverse congregation. And indeed that’s the case, as the 90 members are likely the most diverse church group in Wausau. Besides his role as pastor and church leader, Yang also works full-time as the Hmong liaison for D.C. Everest School District. With his wife, Mayla, he has six children. He volunteers for roughly have a dozen local organizations and causes.
One of his congregants is Laura Sliwicki. Sliwicki, 32, and her husband Lucas, 31, have been members for three years now. Sliwicki first met Yang when she was on her porch drinking. She had just come back from Chicago to Wausau and was having a pretty hard time. “We had a really in-depth conversation and I was crying by the end,” Sliwicki says. “I knew he was going to lead me to a more positive place.”
Both she and her husband are now in recovery, and she credits Yang with helping see her through. Sliwicki joined Yang in his church while it was still in his living room. Both Sliwicki and her husband are now dedicated to the church. She acts as a greeter, helping newcomers feel welcome when they arrive.
A promise kept
A photo of Yang during his service in Iraq.
Yang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand where he lived for the first seven years of his life. In the U.S., Yang’s family first lived in Merrill for a year, and he was one of only a few Hmong students in that district, as most Hmong refugees concentrated in the Wausau area.
His family moved to Wausau a year later, living with eight others in a two-bedroom upstairs duplex. In Wausau, there were far more Hmong students to hang out with and play flag football with, a common recess activity, Yang says. But when the school announced an organized flag football league, none of his fellow Hmong students wanted to join.
But Yang did. Knowing his family didn’t have a lot of money and that his best opportunity for sports was through the school’s extracurricular activities, he showed up for the flag football meeting anyway. “I still remember after school walking into that room, and there were all these blue eyes looking at me,” Yang says, “probably wondering what a Hmong kid was doing there. I got over that — I was a good athlete.”
Yang became an active student, signing up for everything that interested him, often as the only minority in whatever club or sport he joined, Yang says. He graduated from Wausau West, married, and started taking classes at UW-Stevens Point with the intent of being a TV broadcast journalist. “I wanted to be the next face of television,” Yang says. “The next Connie Chung.”
Then Sept. 11 happened. He felt compelled to sign up for the armed services, even though few Hmong young people did, and he wasn’t even a full citizen yet. Once again, that didn’t matter to Yang. “I felt a compulsion to do something to make America safer,” Yang said.
As part of the Wisconsin National Guard, he was called up to active duty in 2004. Most of his fellow soldiers thought he was Chinese, Yang says. His Hmong heritage usually took some explanation. Yang took it in stride. “I was used to being the only Hmong,” Yang says.
By Thanksgiving of 2004 he landed in Kuwait and after a few weeks, on his birthday, ended up in Samarra, one of the most dangerous areas during the Iraq War. “I thought to myself, ‘Yauo, if there is one place with a high probability of dying, it’s here.’”
And there Yang lost his friend and staff sergeant, in a region so dangerous locals were under curfew because of the threat of IEDs. That deadly patrol made Yang think long and hard. He made his promise to God after that, that whatever God asked him to do, he would.
Upon returning to Wausau, he didn’t immediately consider creating a new church. Life went back to normal following his tour of duty. Yang finished college, graduating with a teaching degree, and became a social studies teacher. He and his wife had their first child in 2007. He had a house, a job, a family. “Life got comfortable,” Yang says. He forgot about his promise to God.
Until he didn’t. By 2015, he felt this guilt creep in. God had seen him safely back to America, he says, but he hadn’t done anything to fulfill his part of the deal.
Around that time, two pastors (one Hmong, the other Caucasian) from two different churches asked him about starting, or “planting,” a new church. That seemed to be sign about his promise.
While reflecting on that idea, Yang noticed that he was a Hmong person in a church full of Hmong people. He thought about a Bible passage about gathering all nations, and he made his decision: He would plant a church in Wausau all right. And it would be the most ethnically diverse church in the area, bringing together people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
Yang held the first service in his living room in January of 2016, with a handful of Hmong families. He went out to the places most wouldn’t think to look for new members — homeless shelters, under the bridge near the library. He held Bible studies in jail.
Yang can be persuasive. He has a voice that doesn’t judge, Sliwicki says, and that makes someone feel welcome. “He has this warm aura about him,” Sliwicki says. “You feel drawn to him.”
Yang doesn’t steer away from tough conversations. Yang went to bat for Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger, when Karger faced suspension for joining a march following a rally held on The 400 Block.
Yang somehow finds time to be involved in so many community programs, Karger says. Yang is involved in Toward One Wausau, Healthy Marathon County, the Marathon County Housing and Homeless Coalition, the Marathon County Hunger Coalition, and the Dream Big Scholarship Committee. He’s the director of the Hmong Phoojywg Enrichment Program, a two-week Hmong language and cultural immersion for D.C. Everest and Wausau students.
“To me he’s the most amazing guy I ever met,” Karger says. “He does more in a day, a week, a month, than most people do in a year. He has six kids, a wife, works two full time jobs and volunteers for everything. I don’t know how he does it.”
Also inspired by Yang is Lora Hintze, who with her husband Ed, both 54, joined the church about a year ago. Hintze apologized for a delay in calling me back — she was in the middle of finding shelter for someone without a place to live. She also now performs ministry in the jail. Yang’s enthusiasm tends to rub off on his members.
One visit roughly a year ago was enough to convince Hintze and her family to become members of The Cross. A family member was dealing with addiction issues. “I was searching for a place where they would understand the pain we were going through,” Hintze says. The very first sermon talked about praying for those in recovery or struggling with addiction. “That’s what drew us here,” Hintze says. “Their hearts are totally open to people struggling with this.”
Hintze says she didn’t used to be the type to hold Bible studies in jail or help people find housing, but that’s the kind of influence Yang has. “He puts his own life on hold to help anyone who needs it. I’ve known him to take warm pizzas to people living in their car. He might give them some gas money… If there is a need, we meet it.”
About a year ago, as The Cross gathered more members, the church moved into the YWCA. Services are held in the large meeting room and Yang has an office in the building as well. The Cross’s mission of bringing together ethnically diverse people into a congregation fits well with the YWCA’s own mission of empowering women and eliminating racism, says YWCA Director Andrea Huggenvik. “Yauo is one of the most compassionate human beings I’ve ever met,” Huggenvik says. “He is truly interested in doing whatever he can to help anyone and everyone.”
Starting a church is one thing; Yang wants to do more by helping the homeless. At first that meant developing a soup kitchen. Moving to the YWCA, which is equipped with a commercial kitchen, was a step in that plan. But then Yang realized, what about clothing and shelter?
So The Cross’s new mission, and Yang’s, is to start a center for the homeless that provides all three needs: shelter, clothing and food. It’ll need its own facility, and will take a coalition of organizations to pull it off, which, Yang says, is the next step. Of course, The Salvation Army runs a homeless shelter, but Yang envisions a program that’s more long-term —6 to 12 months if necessary—and serving people in recovery from addictions.
It’s an ambitious goal. “I would say it can’t be done, but I know him better than that,” Karger says. “He will get it done.”