Wednesday, June 28, 2017

We go to the Hmong Church we Noticed First

Peace Lutheran Hmong Ministry, Fresno, California
"Why do you worship the American God?”

Kaying Lee, whose husband is pastor of the Hmong ministry at Peace Lutheran Church, told us she sometimes hears this question from people in the Hmong community. She explained to us that Christianity is new to Hmong people, and many see it as a Western religion -- until they get to know it better.

The Lees have served at Peace Lutheran in Fresno since 2008. Many of the younger Hmong of the church attend the morning English language service, but some are more comfortable attending the Hmong language service at noon.

Kaying herself grew up in far from the United States and the Christian faith. Hmong have traditionally lived in the mountain and hill country of Southeast Asia where, Kaying told us, in many ways the  culture was like that of the Old Testament. As an example, she pointed to the constraints against a younger daughter marrying before her older sister which were common to her culture and the stories of Genesis.

As a child, Kaying lived in a refugee camp for a time, and she came to the United States when she was 15.  She met her husband Khai in the United States, though their families had known each other for generations.But she believes the Hmong community needs the love, peace, and forgiveness found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so their church looks for ways to reach that community. Every year the church participates in one of the large New Year’s celebrations held in Fresno. This year they gave away CDs of Hmong language Christian music.

Kaying greeted us in the parking lot of the church as we arrived at the Sunday School hour. She gave us several suggestions of classes to attend, but I happily accepted the chance to sit in on the high school class.

Janett Lee, Pastor Khai and Kaying’s daughter, led the class (we didn’t know they were related until after class). Janett started working with the Hmong youth when her parents started at the church, but a few years ago the English language congregation of Peace was without a youth pastor, so they combined the two youth groups, with Janett becoming the official youth leader in 2013.

The classroom was a bit messy that morning, since there had been a wedding the day before and the Sunday School room was the changing room for the bridal party. During the week, the room had been used for the church’s Vacation Bible School.

The high school lesson was on Easter morning’s empty tomb, looking at the various Gospel tellings of the Resurrection story. Students continued to come in throughout the hour until there were eighteen kids in the room. Janett used Scripture for the lesson but also used Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. (Kaying mentioned that one of the good things the Lutheran Church offered the Hmong people was the Catechism with its clear presentation of Scripture and theology.)

We weren’t the only bonus adults in class that morning. David, an elder in the church, sat in to observe for a bit. I tried not to talk too much, but the youth pastor in me couldn’t refrain from adding a comment or two.

I talked with Janett after class about her work with the youth. She said that at times they’ve had some troubled kids. She described a kid from several years back who was a bit of a gangbanger, until he decided he prefered what the church had to offer. Their ministry emphasizes service, looking for ways to reach out to the community. If they do a beach trip, they’ll spend an hour picking up litter.

While I talked to Janett, a number of the kids were putting on choir robes. We learned that the youth provide the music for the Hmong worship service.

We went to the sanctuary for the worship service, and Kaying invited us to sit with her in the front row so she could explain what was happening in the service. Much of the music was familiar (“Amazing Grace,” “Jesus Saves”), but the words were Hmong. The youth choir also sang some songs in English during the service.

The Scripture readings were in Hmong, but the Hmong spelling of the names of Biblical books are close enough figure out. (Besides, Kaying told us as well.) It’s interesting to hear the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed in a different language, because the cadences and rhythms are familiar even when the words aren’t.

Janett gave a children’s message in English, the youth sitting with the little kids --  who were brought in from their class for the story -- in the front.

Pastor Khai’s sermon on Psalm 91 was in Hmong, but on occasion there were phrases and whole sentences in English. I asked him after the service whether he did that for our benefit, and he assured us he hadn’t. He said that some things are just easier to say in English than in Hmong, which makes sense.  Hmong Christians haven't had many years to come up with words for Biblical, spiritual, and theological concepts that the church has been trying to put in words for millennia.

Kaying went forward with us for communion, which I appreciated because even though a Lutheran communion is pretty much a Lutheran communion (open hands to receive communion, closed hands for a blessing), I was concerned I’d miss an instruction in Hmong and do something embarrassing (maybe not like pouring the wine down my front, but who knows?).

In the closing announcements I heard the words “silent auction” and “egg rolls;” then Janett announced that the church had a fireworks booth in the SaveMart parking lot  to raise money for youth projects. (I’m pretty sure the fireworks announcement was in English, unless I really caught on to Hmong this month.) I know where we’ll be getting our sparklers.

Everyone was quite gracious and welcoming; Kaying let us know we’d be welcome at any time and invited us to a wedding later this summer. It was good to worship the Hmong God with folks at Peace Lutheran. (Who happens to be one and the same with the American God. And the Kenyan God. And the Australian God. The One God.)

Service Length: 1 hour 19 minutes
Sermon Length: 24 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted numerous times before and during the worship service. The church had a guest book outside the sanctuary, which we signed (we also filled out a communion card)
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 58 (including the little kids who came for the children's message
Probable Ushers’ Count: 65
Snacks: in the Sunday School class, there were trays of crackers and cheese, fruit, veggies, and bagels with cream cheese, along with water pitchers
Musicians: keyboard (woman)
Vocals (choir) 6 women, 4 men
Distance to Church: 1 mile
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

We go to Church among Mennonite Hmong

Pastor Nou Shoua Moua introduced us to Ping and suggested he could sit between Mindy and me. Not to translate the whole service, but just to give us an idea of what was going on. For our second week in a row of worshipping in a Hmong church, we had no expectation of understanding much of what we heard, even though there was some English mixed in.

For instance, before he sat with us, Ping made an announcement. We heard the words “fundraising,” “barbeque,” and “you know, future youth stuff.” After the service, Ping told me that he’s the leader for the youth group. It’s mainly high schoolers, he told us, about ten kids. On Monday nights they get together to work on music, but they often do things after church (though not on this day -- Father’s Day.) Many of the parents want their kids to be involved in church where they’ll continue to hear and speak Hmong. It’s a concern that the kids are losing their connection to the language and the culture.

There were a number of young children in church as well. We first sat across the aisle from a toddler who was was intent on engaging in a staring contest with me, but after we moved to the next row to make room for another family, I guess the toddler won.

In the bulletin, the songs were listed by number. The first (#1) had the tune called Old Hundredth, which we’ve often heard sung as the Doxology, though this morning the song had at least five verses.

I was curious, because a number of people were singing from hymnals, but all the hymnals in the chair in front of me were in English. I asked Ping, and he told me a lot of people bring their own hymnals.

Because it was Father’s Day, the women were leading the music. A group of ladies led that first song and another, then more women come forward to sing an anthem in honor of the fathers.

Before the service started, several men had worked to get a screen and speakers set up in front of the sanctuary. Then there were… technical difficulties. I’m old enough that I’ve seen film and slide projectors malfunction, VCRs act up. Now, even with computers and Powerpoint, it is still not a perfect world. There was quite a bit of scrambling at the computer. (The desktop projected on the screen had the soundtrack for Twilight: Breaking Dawn at the top of the library. Some smart aleck called out, “Just play Twilight!”)

Eventually, the slideshow began, alternating pictures of fathers in the church with inspiring quotes about fatherhood (such as “A good father is one of the most unsung, unpraised, unnoticed, and yet one of the most valuable assets in our society” from Billy Graham, and “Anyone can be a father but it takes a real man to be a dad” by someone or other.)

All of the fathers were called to the front of the sanctuary, so at Ping’s urging, I went to the front as well. If it had been a police lineup, the witness might have been able to pick me out of the crowd. Pastor Moua prayed for us (I assume -- there wasn’t much English in the prayer).

Then the women went to the back of the sanctuary and picked up the Father’s Day gifts. Mindy brought the mug filled with candy to me. The man next to me received his mug from a very small girl standing next to a woman. Another man teased him, “You’re supposed to get your gift from your honey!” I assume those had been the instructions in Hmong.

Pastor Moua then said (according to Ping) that because of the slideshow mishap there wasn’t time for a sermon, so he closed in prayer after inviting everyone to go into the kitchen for baked goodies (donuts and sesame balls among the treats).

I asked Pastor Moua after the service what he had planned to preach on; he told me he was going to preach on the family, from Ephesians.  When I asked his history with the church, he said he’d founded the congregation back in 1990. He and his wife moved to Colorado, but came back about ten years ago.

I spoke with Chang, a church officer, and asked him about strengths of the church. He told me their pastor was very good about reaching the community. He has a radio ministry, which provides great opportunities to reach the Hmong community through the medium. He said the church runs workshops that minister to the community, and their pastor does, at times, make trips to the Hmong ministries that the church sponsors in Thailand.

I talked to another man, Daniel, about what he believed were the strengths of the church. He spoke of the strong leadership and the good family values the church provided.  We also talked with Kao, Pastor Moua’s niece. She said that her uncle preached love, and whenever people faced trouble, the church came together to meet people’s needs.

When we arrived, many people welcomed us, and when we left, many people asked us to come again. It would be a pleasure to return, even knowing I wouldn’t receive the great Father’s Day swag I got on this visit. (And about my mug, which reads, “Best Dad Ever.” The other mugs can’t possibly read that as well, can they? You can’t lie to everyone else like that.)

Service Length: 1 hour 30 minutes
Sermon Length: no sermon
Visitor Treatment: The pastor and Chang, the church officer, greeted us when we arrived, and the pastor’s wife greeted both of us as well. We signed the guest book just inside the sanctuary.
Followup by Tuesday Morning:
Our Rough Count: 68
Probable Ushers’ Count: 75
Snacks: water bottles, orange juice, apple juice, donuts, and sesame balls
Musicians: piano (man)
Vocals (6 women, and 6 more joined them for the Father’s Day song)
Songs: “Old Hundredth” (tune; we don’t know what the words were)
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (probably)
“Father’s Day song”
Distance to Church: 6.5 miles
Open WiFi: locked guest wifi
Tie/Suit Count: about half the men (and many of the women) wore suits of one kind or another
Church Website:

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

We Go to Church to be among Hmong

Memorial United Methodist Church Hmong Ministry, Clovis, California
Memorial United Methodist Church Hmong Ministry, Clovis, California
I had no idea what most of the words on the screen were, but I had a guess of what “Yesxus” meant. I checked with the Pastor Yeu after the service to find that I was right; it was the Hmong word for “Jesus.”

There are several things I love about this word. 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.” So I love that that the Hmong word for Jesus had “Yes” in it. And the next letter is “x”, which, of course, can be a symbol for Christ because “X” is the Greek letter “Chi” which is the first letter in “Christ” in Greek. You know, like in “Xmas”. And finally, there is “us,” so “we” are “in Jesus.”

If we’d been in a Korean or Chinese church, I probably wouldn’t be able to pick out anything from the writing on the screen, because the writing would be characters I don’t know. But Hmong people use the Roman alphabet. Their written language was developed in the 1950’s in Laos with the assistance of American missionary linguists. I know my conjectures about this particular word probably have no basis in linguistic reality. But I still think it’s cool.

We were worshiping in the sanctuary of Memorial United Methodist Church at the 10:00 am worship service. There are English language services in the sanctuary at 8:45 and 11:15, and it was nice to see people from the two language groups greeting each other as they arrived and departed. We were welcomed warmly by members of the Hmong congregation (and the English language congregations as well).

Pastor Veu Vang told us he wouldn’t be preaching that day. Four women had been at a women’s conference, and they would be sharing their experiences. He told me he had been serving the church for the previous year, and that prior to that he had been a part of a United Methodist Hmong congregation in Sacramento. (The National Hmong Caucus of the United Methodist Church has congregations in other areas of Northern California, including Marysville, Oroville, and Merced.)

Everyone stood as the service began. The keyboard introduction to the first chorus was vaguely jazzy (Al Jarreau came to mind). As I mentioned, I didn’t understand any of the words (but one) in the lyrics on the screens, and I didn’t recognize any of the tunes -- except one, after the offering was taken. Then we recognized the tune (but not the words, of course) of the Doxology. And those words weren’t even on the screen.
Though most of the words on the screens were Hmong, occasionally words in English would show up. “Announcements,” for instance, appeared when announcements were given. From a few English words thrown in with the announcements made in Hmong, we figured there would be a meeting of some kind after church. Also during the announcements, Mindy and I were introduced as guests.

The four women who attended the Women’s Retreat went to the front of the sanctuary to share. (Apparently there is no Hmong phrase for “Women’s Retreat” because we heard the English phrase used a number of times in the midst of Hmong.) The women all wanted to defer to each other over who should take the mic first (a quiet debate I’ve seen in any number of church services when a group is asked to share).

The first woman spoke in Hmong. When she handed the mic to a second woman, that woman said the first woman had asked her to translate some of the things that the first woman had shared. In English, the woman said they had learned much about prayer at the three day retreat. They were encouraged to pray at least five times a day: to begin the day with a morning blessing, to ask God’s blessing on the food at each meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and to conclude the day with a prayer of thanks. They had also been encouraged to pray for their enemies. That prayer should be a “good prayer,” not just a prayer to get the person out of one’s life, but for God’s blessing to work in that person’s life. 

Then the second woman shared what had impressed her at the retreat. A missionary had talked about sharing the Gospel and stressed how important it was not to hold anything back. The missionary had said there were times she had held back on sharing difficult aspects of the Gospel, which had often led to confusion down the road.

The rest of the women shared their experiences in Hmong; afterward, Pastor Yeu spoke in response to what the women had said for fifteen minutes or so. (True of pastors everywhere, when they say they aren’t preaching, they still often do.) As he spoke, there was some interaction with members of the congregation speaking up, and at one point  the pastor brought a gentleman from the congregation up to the front to help illustrate a point.

After Pastor Vau concluded his remarks, the slide on the screens changed. We saw the English word “benediction” at the bottom of the screen, and indeed, the service concluded after a prayer.

We asked if we were right about our guess that a business meeting would follow the service. (Usually there is a Hmong adult Sunday School class.) We were told there would indeed be a meeting, a rather special one. Pastor Yeu had not been officially working in a paid position at the church, and the meeting was to make his position official. We heard that this was not the only exciting news in Pastor Yeu’s life. His wife had been living in Laos, but she would be coming the next day to the United States.

We were happy to have visited on such an exciting day in the life of this congregation. Many people thanked us for coming and encouraged us to come again. We’d like to. It is always a joy to be with faithful followers of Yesxus.

Service Length: 55 minutes
Sermon Length: 30 minutes (15 minutes of the women speaking, 15 minutes of the pastor speaking)
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted by several people before we sat down, and both before and after church, people from the English congregation also greeted us.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (but there was no place to record our attendance except the English language congregation’s attendance register.
Our Rough Count: 30
Probable Ushers’ Count: 45
Snacks: none
Musicians: keyboard (man)
Vocals (3 women)
Songs: “Kuv lug ntseog Yesxus”
“Tsuv Yesxus yog txhua yaam rua kuv”
“Yog peb tsi ntsib huv nplajteb nuav”
Distance to Church: 4.5 miles
Open WiFi: locked guest wifi
Tie/Suit Count: 1 suit
Church Website:

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Dean and Mindy Miss Church

Golden Bowl Market in Fresno is not a Hmong church
Hmong Month
I’m sorry you have to read this, but mistakes were made.

This month, we’re (eagerly) anticipating worshiping with Hmong Christians each weekend and telling you what we learn. We’re looking forward to singing songs we don’t know, hearing words we don’t understand, tasting food we haven’t tried before, and getting to know some of our neighbors. We’ve been planning this month since we moved to Fresno.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve spent time in a variety of other churches where English wasn’t the primary language of most in the congregation -- including an Arabic-language congregation in Michigan, a multi-ethnic African congregation in Iowa, and a Korean-language church in Buena Park, California. We’ve also gotten to participate in worship services in Cantonese, Slavonic, Latin, and Indonesian.

poster of Hmong generals at Golden Bowl Market in Fresno. A market isn't a church
This is a little different, though. Fresno has one of the largest Hmong communities in the United States; almost 5% of the population is of Hmong descent. During the 1980s, the Hmong community in Fresno grew from almost none to more than 25,000.

Hmong are not from just one country. For around 4000 years, the culture has migrated through a variety of areas of Asia, from China to Burma, Laos to Thailand. One article I read defined being Hmong as speaking the language (which wasn’t written until the 1950s) and giving  back to the Hmong community. And while Hmong culture looks different in different places, we expect to find traditions that are similar in the various churches we visit.

Memorial Methodist Church in Clovis, California
But mistakes were made. Mostly by me (Mindy).

After researching nearby Hmong churches, we decided to visit the congregation that meets in a Methodist church in Clovis. From what we saw online (and on the permanent wood sign in front of the church building) the worship service we wanted began Sunday afternoon at 3:00. That sounded perfect, since we had brunch at The Bridge at 11:00 that morning. Other local Hmong congregations meet earlier on Sunday, so we thought we'd visit them on the other Sundays this month.

Can you tell what time the Hmong service begins at Memorial?
When we arrived around 2:45, the Korean congregation that also meets in the building was just finishing. Apparently I hadn’t read the banner in front of the church that listed all the worship services. We were too late. The Hmong church met at 10:00.

sugarcane, squash, and melons at Golden Bowl Market in Fresno. Still not a church.
All the other Hmong congregations nearby were done with their worship services for the week, but we couldn’t wait any longer to get a sense of the community. We whetted our appetite with a trip to The Golden Bowl Market. And we'll make sure to get the worship times right next week.

We might even visit (and, of course, write about) two churches one week just to catch up!