Minnesota, Land of Lutherans, has welcomed Hmong Lutherans as part of its religious community. Hmong Central Lutheran Church (at 301 Fuller Ave, in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul) is the largest Hmong Lutheran congregation in the world, with 483 members, according to its pastor, William Siong.
Hmong Central Lutheran Church is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church synod. The Hmong Lutheran Church, which recently moved away from its location at Thomas and Snelling in St. Paul was a part of the Missouri Lutheran synod. Two other churches — Immanuel Hmong Lutheran Church (765 Margaret Street, St. Paul) and First Hmong Evangelical Lutheran Church (Woodbury)– are listed as churches of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran synod. (The address of the Woodbury church could not be confirmed.) In addition to specifically Hmong Lutheran churches, some other Lutheran churches have Hmong-language services and substantial numbers of Hmong members.
Lutherans are historically the largest religious denomination in Minnesota, but most Hmong people who have converted to Christianity belong to evangelical churches. Many of these churches are part of the Hmong Christian and Missionary Alliance, which established a mission in Laos in the late 19th century.
Pastor William Siong, the head pastor at Hmong Central Lutheran Church, converted to Christianity in 1991 and studied to become a minister shortly after his conversion.
“Deep down, I feared that I would never have enough money to help the Hmong people—but I decided to become a pastor because I felt like I had something to share with them” Siong said.
When Siong came to America, he was troubled by the traditional Hmong cosmology. He said that his family lived in constant fear because of a bad spirit that had attached itself to his family, a spirit that manifested itself through several tragedies, including the deaths of family members. He converted to Christianity because he felt that it was the only escape from the fear that his family constantly felt.
The traditional religion of the Hmong people is a complex mix of animism and ancestor worship, in which spiritual, physical and mental health are closely tied. Guidance and counsel in the Hmong religion comes from a shaman, who guides a person’s souls (Hmong believe that a person’s body has many souls) and keeps destructive spirits at bay.
“Not everything we brought from home is good, but not everything here is good either. We have to decide what’s best,” Siong said.
While Siong’s conversion to Christianity came as a relief to him, it created a painful rift in his family. His father, a shaman, did not approve of his decision to believe in a new religion.
“[in the Hmong culture] whatever my family believes, I have to believe—I have to go with my parents even if I don’t believe,” Siong said.
The strong role of the immediate family is extended to the clan, which is a larger group of related people. There are 18 Hmong clans in the Twin Cities, and traditionally, everyone in the clan has to follow the clan leader in whatever lifestyle he chooses. This might mean adhering to the religious practices of the clan leader, or moving away when the clan leader decides to move.
“If you believe in Jesus, you may be alone. If the clan leader converts to Christianity, you have to follow, Siong said.
Though the disagreement with his father was painful, Siong persevered in his decision to convert to Christianity. With the help of his local pastor, he followed through with his ordination as pastor and eventually amassed the largest Hmong Lutheran congregation ever, with 83 families.
Siong acknowledged that some families that attend his church practice traditional rituals at home, and some of them may even seek the help of a shaman as well as attending Lutheran church.
“It’s very complicated to deal with those families that serve two masters,” Siong said.
Hmong tradition differs from the Western conception that religion is separate from other aspects of life. Anne Fadiman is the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which followed the intergenerational struggle of a Hmong family in California. Fadiman said of Hmong society, “Medicine was religion. Religion was society. Society was medicine. Even economics was mixed up in there.”
According to Lee Pao Xiong from the Concordia University Center for Hmong Studies, 40% of the Hmong people have converted to Christianity.
Katie Mocol is a journalism student at Hamline University and an intern with the Twin Cities Daily Planet.