Salem-Zion Mennonite Church of Freeman, South Dakota, was blessed to have a visit from St. Paul (Minnesota) Hmong Mennonite Church on May 14-15. The two congregations have a long history of fraternal relationships, with occasional visits back and forth for more than a decade. About 15 members of Hmong Mennonite made the long journey from St. Paul for a potluck supper on Saturday night at Salem-Zion. Sunday morning, May 15, the Hmong church brought special music, and Pastor Xeng brought the message. Then the Hmong church served a traditional Asian dinner for Salem-Zion—egg rolls, cabbage roll soup, chicken fried rice, a stir fry with rice, and a tasty tricolor coconut milk dessert with tapioca, jack fruit and palm seed.
We learned that St. Paul Hmong Mennonite has grown rapidly since the arrival of Pastor Xeng about a year and half ago, and now encompasses 27 families with a church family of over 90. The Hmong church sang two songs in the Hmong language but with Western tunes. Pastor Xeng’s message from Matthew 14:22-33, the story of Jesus walking on the water, emphasized the importance of spiritual disciplines in the Christian life and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. Pastor Xeng, dressed in traditional Hmong garb, preached in Hmong, which was ably translated by one of his members. A Salem-Zion member commented how appropriate it was for us to hear God’s Word in another language on Pentecost Sunday.
It was exciting for us at Salem-Zion to meet and visit with the Hmong members on Saturday evening, most of whom were young adults. They were enthusiastic about their church and were quite articulate in describing the challenges involved in being Hmong Christians here in the United States. Salem-Zion members were invited at the Sunday noon dinner to contribute to the building fund of the Hmong congregation as they seek their own place of worship.
The two congregations have much in common despite their different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Both are ethnic Mennonite congregations for whom maintaining a cultural identity distinct from the dominant American society is part of their expression of Christian faith. Both feel called to be alternative communities of faith within the dominant culture, and through their cultural heritage and Christian faith to be one of those communities of every “tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9) who are being gathered to God’s throne.
Not every element of traditional culture is important or worthy to be preserved, so Hmong Christian communities, like ethnic communities of European heritage, need always to be discriminating about the cultural forms and traditions they will preserve. For new immigrant communities like the Hmong, that is a persistent and on-going process made all the more urgent by their traditional culture’s rapid assimilation into mainstream American society. We learned that these questions of ethnic and faith identity in the context of the dominant American culture are a particular issue for Hmong young adults.
Congregations like Hmong Mennonite and Salem-Zion might both benefit from a more intentional and sustained conversation about how to build authentic and vital alternative communities of faith with a distinctive ethnic heritage in the context of American society.
Multiculturalism does not have to happen only within congregations, admirable and desirable as that is. It can also be expressed between congregations, each with their unique ethnic heritage and traditions, as in these contacts between the Hmong Church of St. Paul and Salem-Zion of Freeman.