by Shelah Mastny Miner
MANOLIE NETTAVONGS JASPER entered this world as a princess.
She was born in the bed of her grandfather, the king, in the palace at Xiangkhouangville, Laos. Manolie’s grandfather lived to the age of 115 and spent time in his waning years personally teaching his young granddaughter. She says, “Grandfather believed in education as the key to a good future for Laos, and as our personal key. We were taught that the most important person in our youth, next to our own parents and grandparents, was our teacher.” Her grandfather also believed that the education of his posterity would “be their ‘land’ and go with them wherever they went.” While the political unrest in Laos deprived his children and grandchildren of their ancestral property, and the Communist regime later took away the freedom of those who remained in Laos, their education could never be taken from them.
Starting when she was six, Manolie learned yoga and meditation from King Sagmavongs Southakakouman, which she has used throughout her life. “My grandfather told me, ‘Nobody needs to grow old.’ What they do need is to take care of their body by eating properly, exercising their body in the ancient ways, realizing their need for meditation and prayer, as well as respecting their body and their immortal soul in the way they live.” Nearly seventy years later, Manolie still lives according to the principles of health and simplicity she learned as a child. She eats healthy foods in season, uses a storage tank on her roof to heat water during the summer, and doesn’t run her air conditioner, which wastes precious energy. In the course of our interview, I also learned that she doesn’t own a car, preferring to walk where she can and relying on public transportation when walking isn’t practical. She also teaches yoga and walking meditation classes and runs a small healthy living store from her home. Manolie continually peppered our conversation with references to prayer. This concept, ingrained in her by her Buddhist grandfather, continues to give her strength on a daily basis.
Growing up at the palace, Manolie felt the freedom to pursue truths that would enlighten her intellect and spirit. She says, “One day when I was seven years old, I had come home and told my mother, ‘I have found something good.’ Mother asked what that might be, and I told her I wanted to be baptized like the missionary family that had moved in next door … I saw something in them, which, for all the love and wisdom that existed within my own family, was at once instantly appealing, and I had observed them long enough to be sure that they had something I wanted in my life.” When Manolie’s grandfather found out about her interest in Christianity, he brought out a copy of the New Testament, written in French, which he obtained as a young man traveling abroad. He instructed his granddaughter to read the book so she would know what she was getting herself into when she converted. Duly prepared, Manolie was soon baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist church.
Some families, especially those in positions of power, might have seen her conversion to Christianity as turning her back on Buddhism, but Manolie’s family supported her in her choice. She says, “Grandfather said that God has such power that He can do anything, and because He can do anything, He can teach His people through a son known as Lord Buddha, through a son named Muhammad, through a son named Jesus, and through prophets and others.”
Shortly after Manolie’s graduation from nursing school, a Catholic nun asked her to come to southern Laos for three years to use her nursing skills as part of an interfaith team serving lepers. The young princess had already seen much political unrest and war in her life (she was briefly held as a prisoner of war as a child and had to sneak back into Laos after attending high school in Vietnam), and she gained wisdom about the meaning of humanity during her missionary experience with the lepers. “I have often thought how I might convey the brotherhood and sisterhood we share with such people. I picture you listening to one of our conversations, but we are sitting in the dark and we are talking about their children and the weather, a good meal we enjoyed—just normal things anyone would talk about. Then you picture a door to the outside world opening and letting sunshine fill the room. Everything changes, except to a blind man. Suddenly, in that instant you are confronted with the disfigurement of the person with that beautiful voice and those very normal remarks.
“In serving the lepers in southern Laos I had developed not only a love for them, but also a love and respect for the religious views of the others with whom I served. I had experienced a unity in our efforts, which I pray the Catholics and Protestants in all Christendom will one day experience. We represented the best of what it means to be Catholic, and Seventh-day Adventist, and Jehovah’s Witness, and other denominations, for we were practicing our faith by our service to each other and to those who needed us.”
Shortly after returning from southern Laos, Manolie was called to another medical mission, this time in Australia. Upon her return from Australia, she moved to Vientiane, where her family had resettled due to the political situation in Xiangkhouangville, and enrolled in medical school. Soon after graduation she fell in love with an American, Demas Jasper, who was working for the Agency for International Development in Vientiane. They married and moved to Falls Church, Virginia, where Manolie worked with refugees, helped raise Demas’s two children from a previous marriage, and had three children—a daughter in 1975 and twin sons fourteen months later.
After settling in Virginia, Demas joined the LDS Church. Manolie was still considering her options when the bishop decided to pay her a visit. She says, “I got off the bus and saw him waiting for me. He said, ‘I don’t want to interfere or go inside your house because I know you need to feed your family. But I want to ask you two questions: Do you know The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and do you read the Book of Mormon?’ I said, ‘I go to church sometimes and I’ve listened to President Kimball talking. My granddad taught me that Heavenly Father never leaves His children alone without a great teacher to guide them. I think President Kimball is one of the great teachers. My granddad is gone, but I still have President Kimball.’ The bishop said, ‘Do you believe President Kimball is the prophet on the earth?’ ‘I believe he is a great teacher and I really like him.’ ‘Do you think you can be baptized next Saturday?’ That’s when I was baptized. And I’ve been a faithful member ever since.” Sometimes people just need to ask.
As a working mother Manolie focused on balancing her job and her home life. She found success, she says, through prayer. “I worked with refugees, which was sometimes very stressful, but I never brought the stress home. It wasn’t healthy to talk about work when I walked in the door. Work is work and home is home. I felt love for the people when I was at work. And when I left, I said a prayer. Even before I closed my office I sat silently and said, ‘Please, Heavenly Father. I will leave my work at my door, and even though I love them, don’t let them follow me.’”
When Manolie’s children were teenagers and she and Demas had resettled in Utah Valley, they opened a restaurant. Her children were expected to work, and she says the work they did was an important part of their education. “They wanted the easy jobs, like serving or hostessing,” Manolie laughs. “But I put them to work bussing tables and washing dishes. It was good for them. It taught them to work.”
Although she was born into a royal family, Manolie doesn’t seem to be impressed by material possessions. “Lately I’ve been giving away lots of my things to my children,” she says, “and if they choose not to keep them, that’s fine with me.” Manolie may not be the kind of princess who wore ball gowns, but she seems to have found a “happily ever after” through her lifelong pursuit of knowledge. She says, “My education started with the love of my parents and grandparents. It comes from people working together to help others, despite their own nominal differences … It has come from a seemingly helpless leper smiling a nod of thanks. It has come from seeing the vengeance and callousness that can subjugate innocent people and diminish nations. It has come from having children of my own and the love and respect of my stepchildren.” Through education, Manolie Nettavongs Jasper, a regal woman, has gained a royal legacy.