A standing ovation erupted inside the Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena during Sunday morning service as Matt and Grace Huang were called before the congregation.
The Asian American couple, who were detained in Qatar for almost two years before recently being cleared in the death of their 8-year-old daughter, hugged their two young sons, as some parishioners’ eyes filled with tears. The couple’s captivity drew international headlines.
They thanked the crowd of more than 2,000 for their prayers and support.
Coming back and worshipping with fellow Christians is “just something that we longed for – for so long,” Matt Huang told the parishioners, gathered in a sanctuary aglow with holiday lights. He described the pair’s battle for freedom as having “taught us patience,” adding that they are discovering “amazing, hidden blessings” God bestowed on them “through this crisis.”
“To have you home is the greatest Christmas present that we could ever, ever have,” Senior Pastor Greg Waybright said. He compared the couple’s plight to false accusations faced by Jesus, urging his congregation to keep turning to God for refuge and strength.
The Huang saga began with their arrest in January 2013, when officials in Doha, the capital of Qatar, accused them of starving their adopted daughter to death, with the intent to sell her organs on the black market. Authorities refused to accept their explanation that Gloria died from an eating disorder complicated by the childhood hunger she suffered in her native Ghana.
The Huangs spent nearly a year in jail, as their adopted sons, now 7 and 12, bounced around in foster care until they were able to return to the U.S. to stay with their maternal grandmother. Meanwhile, authorities convicted their parents of child endangerment, despite a botched autopsy and without sharing any evidence with the defendants.
Being in legal limbo cost Matt Huang, an engineer sent to Qatar to help with building new infrastructure for the country’s 2025 World Cup, his job and mounting legal bills eventually forced the couple to sell their San Gabriel Valley home to pay off debts. From the start, their representatives at the Los Angeles-based David House Agency, an expert in managing international crisis, called their case “a tragic cultural misunderstanding” in a nation where Western-style adoptions and cross-cultural families are extremely rare.
Two weeks ago, before an appeals hearing scheduled for the couple in Doha, church leaders asked parishioners to stay an extra 45 minutes after each service for a special prayer session for the couple. They aired a BBC interview of the troubles onscreen, then dividing into small groups to pray for justice in Qatar and for more diplomatic aid from the U.S. State Department in lobbying for the Huangs’ release.
“We link with people from all walks of life and cultures – and when any family member is in crisis – we try to be the hands and feet of Jesus in helping,” says Jeff Mattesich, lead ministry pastor. Volunteers used the couple’s story in the children and teen ministries to illustrate the power of prayer.
Last week, an appeals judge overturned the couple’s conviction, and when Mattesich’s son, Henry, 6, heard the news of the couple’s return, he told his dad: “God heard our prayers.”
Sunday morning, Mattesich asked churchgoers to donate to a benevolent fund to help the family “get back on the ground.”
“They’re very, very loved by the church,” said parishioner Allie Ramsey at the end of the emotional service, filled with songs about the glory of miracles. She and her husband, Chris, joined the Lake Avenue congregation about a year and a half ago, shortly after the Huangs’ ordeal unfolded. They prayed for this dreamed-of reunion and kept up to date reading Facebook posts about the saga.
“Isn’t it timely that they’re home between Thanksgiving and Christmas, at a time we think about new beginnings and they’re experiencing just that, a new beginning,” says Shiela Wolford, of San Gabriel, a church member for 38 years. “They can’t make up the time they lost. They can only make life better. We support them all the way.”