By: Jerad Morey
The Hmong are an ethnic group from Laos. During the Vietnam War, Hmong soldiers fought alongside U.S. troops, opposing the North Vietnamese and the Communist Pathet Lao. When the Pathet Lao took over the Laotian government in 1975, they persecuted the Hmong in retribution. Many Hmong fled to Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps. Some were welcomed in the camps by United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) staff.
“In 1980, a lot of Hmong refugees came from Laos to the United States,” explained Rev. Daniel JouPao Yang of Wheelock UMC. “Most of them were sponsored by American congregations, including United Methodist congregations.” For these refugees adapting to everyday life in the United States was disorienting. Many did not know how to speak English. “A few families, who lived in public housing, were taking classes in English as a Second Language (ESL) at what was then known as Wesley United Methodist Church on Wheelock Parkway in St. Paul,” Yang noted. “Having again experienced hospitality from the church as they tried to settle successfully in their new country, some decided that they wanted to learn more about Christianity.”
The immigrants found a social worker who had received biblical training back in Laos. They wanted him to lead a Hmong congregation. The families didn’t miss the fact that their ESL classes were held in a United Methodist church. “They had also been impressed with UMCOR’s help in easing their transition to the United States,” recalls the Rev. Charles Purdham, the then-Metro East district superintendent.
In March 1981, the Hmong Community UMC in St. Paul began worship with 37 people. The congregation had grown to 160 by July, when it was officially chartered and became, according to Yang, the first Hmong United Methodist Church in the world. Bishop Wayne Clymer appointed the Rev. Jonah Xu Yang, the biblically trained social worker, as the new church’s first pastor.
Daniel Yang became a member of Hmong Community UMC a year after its launch in 1981. While attending the church, he heard a call from God to serve in ministry, so he went to study at Bethel Seminary in Minnesota. He was moved to the Hmong Community UMC full-time in 1998. Yang soon saw a way to ensure that the seed planted 17 years earlier in St. Paul would continue to bear fruit and multiply.
In 2000, the General Board of Global Ministries, in partnership with the Indochinese National Caucus, went to Laos to pursue the possibility of introducing United Methodists from the United States to the people of Laos. Because Daniel Yang was chair of the Association of Hmong United Methodist Churches, he was part of that delegation. Delegates began building relationships during the visit and, the following year, Global Ministries commissioned Mr. Tsuchue Vang and Mrs. Joa Vang as two of the first missionaries to Laos. “They are members of my St. Paul congregation,” Yang said, beaming.
That was 11 years ago. As of today there are between 68 and 97 United Methodist congregations in Laos and 20 ordained Laotian clergy. The Association of Hmong UMCs reports that, by 2009, there were 40 licensed local pastors and mission pastors and 59 lay preachers in the country. “Over 7,000 Hmong and Laotians in Laos received the love of Christ through our church,” Yang says. “They are very proud to be United Methodists and continue to have a good relationship not just with other Hmong Methodists but with Methodists all over the United States.”
Hmong UMC moved again this summer. Rev. Yang reflected on the new ministries that the church’s new location will enable. “One of our goals has been to reach Hmong people for Christ,” he said. “We used to live in a place where there were not a lot of Hmong people, but we’re excited that, now, we’ll be in the midst of them.”
Hmong Community UMC’s newest location is in a church whose previous congregation closed its doors. Wheelock Parkway UMC was an aging Anglo congregation that tried its best to grow but was ultimately unable to reach its changing neighborhood. Because of this, the church found itself at the end of its congregational life cycle.
However, the former members of Wheelock Parkway UMC may feel comforted by the harvest of their decades laboring in the vineyard. Back in the 1980s, when they were known as Wesley UMC, they opened their arms to their new neighbors by offering classes in English.
Rev. Yang’s new office is in the building where the church’s outreach to the Hmong all began. He cites Ephesians 2:19: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household….” (NIV) To Yang, that means that “the Hmong are no longer foreigners and strangers here in the United Methodist Church, but fellow citizens. “We will do our best to encourage and empower our people to support the United Methodist Church,” he pledged—“to be faithful in our gifts, time, talents, and witness.”
The Hmong Community UMC is already envisioning new community ministries that will help its members—and other members of its community—claim their shared citizenship in Christ. Some of these outreach ideas include a food shelf, a clothing closet, job-search help, and, of course, ESL. And they have recently changed their name to Wheelock UMC, reflecting a shifting focus on their neighbors, whatever their native culture.
Jerad Morey is a member of Mosaic in Brooklyn Park and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @Jerad.
Abridged from an article in the August 2012 issue of New World Outlook.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church