Finding a Hmong Identity in The Alliance

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By Second W. Yang
Photography by Katherina Vang
Oct 28, 2019 | 8 min read
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Liminality permeates all avenues of my life. I exist as a second-generation Hmong American flowing in and out of Hmong and American culture. I am a middle child. I am a son and I am a father to four brilliant children. I am a bi-vocational pastor working at a financial institution full-time. To top it off, I am close to becoming a middle-aged man. When reflecting on the contribution of the Christian & Missionary Alliance (The Alliance) toward Hmong ethnic identity, I again find myself in this recognizable liminal plane.

My outlook may be unique as I have been a part of The Alliance movement for 24 years. The first 15 years was with the Hmong District of The Alliance, and the last nine years have been with the North Central District of The Alliance. I am also the first licensed worker of Hmong descent in the North Central District.

The stories I convey provide rare insights from various angles. My views are anecdotal and by no means do they represent all other middle-aged men in my demographic. I hope my perspective will lend to new understandings. This is my chapter in the greater Alliance story and one I am eager to share.

I grew up in the heartland of America — Greenfield, Indiana — a place where all associations lead back to a heritage of corn, basketball, and country roads. My parents originally landed in Honolulu, Hawaii, escaping the refugee camps in Thailand. My father was reunited with his brothers when Greenfield Christian Church sponsored their reunion.

I struggled to define an idea of Hmong ethnic identity growing up. Whatever my parents modeled for my brothers and me at home became the foundation for our cultural considerations. With a handful of other Hmong families near us, our bonds through language, food, and the desire to seek out faces that resembled our own kept us together. I remember the men sat around the living room exchanging stories while the women cooked and laughed in the kitchen.

Seeing that we were small in number, it was always such a wonderful treat to come together. I yearned to be near other Hmong, as I felt like a fish out of water in school and in my neighborhood. I found it difficult to understand why other children saw me as someone different. They liked “He-Man”, “Transformers”, and “G.I. Joe”, and I did, too. They played kickball, football, and baseball, and I did, too.

Finding a Hmong Identity in The Alliance

Back in Laos, a host of factors separated Hmong from one another. Those factors ranged from mountains and valleys to familial clans. Ancestral responsibilities still mattered in our new home, but somehow, a little less so. Specific colors, intricate patterns, and ornate headpieces marked differences in regional Hmong attire. Hmong women from the Xieng Khuang province wore white, pleated dresses, and generally spoke White Hmong dialect.

After fleeing the devastation of war, many abandoned their ancestral fabrics and replaced them with American apparel. Rich traditions, steeped in visually indicative markers, no longer delineated a person’s tribe. The English language soon dominated conversations held in many Hmong homes overtaking our native tongue, which assumed a spot of insignificance stretching beyond the walls of our houses. As a matter of survival, our parents spoke more English in an effort to connect with neighbors and with coworkers and supervisors in their places of employment.

During summer breaks, we packed in the old GMC Safari and made the dreaded annual trip to Minnesota to visit my mother’s side of the family. As a teenager, I despised Minnesota. To my naïve eyes, it represented poverty and chaos, and I associated those themes with Hmong identity. I was ignorant of the living conditions of my people. I applaud my parents and their efforts to provide for the family. As one of the few Hmong to earn a college degree from Laos, my father clung tightly to his diploma as he journeyed to his new dwelling in America. My parents avoided the dangers of crossing the
Mekong River.

However, many shared stories of bravery and others of loss due to the strong currents, which tore relatives apart. In such a case, my wife’s grandmother sorrowfully vanished. Mrs. Chia Sao Xiong (Tong Vang) drowned in the darkness after their raft capsized. Her pre-adolescent son could not save her, nor could the evacuees properly bury her.

Hearing these types of stories made me feel far removed from Hmong people. I grew up in a farming town and never felt comfortable around other Hmong. Criticized and ridiculed by Hmong peers, my brothers and I were called “bananas” and “Twinkies”. It added to my identity crisis. Our mannerisms appeared dissimilar and our well-spoken English set us apart. We were “white” on the inside and “yellow” on the outside. I related intelligence with “whiteness” and hid the fact that I knew answers to questions. This affected me academically for over a decade.

Teasing was a huge reason why I avoided Minnesota. Ironically, I have resided in the Twin Cities for nearly 12 years now. The Lord definitely has a sense of humor.

Months before my senior year of high school, my parents and a half-dozen other Hmong families started a church. The Hmong District sent delegates, staff, and pastors to assist us in our early stages. I started to meet other Hmong teenagers who looked and acted like me. They enjoyed listening to alternative rock and reading comic books. For once, I belonged to a subgroup that made sense to me. Being a “banana” or a “Twinkie” no longer held adverse connotations.

My narrow lens of Hmong in Minnesota failed to illuminate the larger cultural shift in America. The diversity within Hmong communities became increasingly apparent to me at HLUB in 1997. Hlub means “love” in Hmong. This annual youth conference invited teenagers from all over the country to join in worship and learn about Jesus. These experiences are important as they illustrate how The Alliance created space that reflected both shared and diverse aspects within my ethnic group.

It is difficult to pinpoint Hmong ethnic identity. The conversation ought to shift to Hmong American identity. Under the umbrella of Hmong American identity lies three main generations: first, second, and the rising third. Which group truly expresses Hmong American identity?

Second-generation Hmong Americans have completely reimagined this term. We are no longer what our parents were 40 years ago. My experience of Hmong American identity exists predominantly in a Judeo-Christian setting. Those who branded other Hmong as “banana” and “Twinkie” were comparing them to their larger identity of what it was to be Hmong. These dynamics create empathy when dissecting The Alliance’s involvement toward Hmong ethnic identity.

The Alliance extended compassion to an unknown people group. I have an indebtedness to the denomination and a deep appreciation for their kindness. The empathy was modeled for Hmong because The Alliance did not create categories. We could define our own terms. I do not resent those who resorted to name-calling, as they were not able to see the spectrum of Hmong American identity.

Finding a Hmong Identity in The Alliance
• • •

The Alliance is organized in what is defined as constituted authorities. Districts were divided geographically due to the configuration model adopted at General Council in 1912. Since The Alliance was a movement without a formalized structure, its growth necessitated the change.

In the late 1970s, a large influx of Hmong refugees from Laos arrived. By way of existing relationships with The Alliance, many Hmong flocked to the denomination. This history is chronicled and available through the Hmong District. As the number of minority believers grew, establishing districts by geography no longer became the sole source of determination. The Hmong District quickly grew to be one of the largest ethnic groups in The Alliance. It was originally known as Hmong Field Conference until the name changed in 1985. Other ethnic districts include but are not limited to Cambodian, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Contribution to Hmong ethnic identity may not be measurable, yet allowing Hmong to be themselves in an ecclesial setting cultivated cultural-centric growth. For example, Hmong have been able to maintain their language. A positive aspect was the Hmong District’s ability to incorporate traditional practices and rituals in order to provide guidance for local churches. There has been no pressure from the home office to implement a Western mindset or practices in services. The Hmong District does fall under the authority of The Alliance; nonetheless, the Hmong District discovered its own footing.

As Hmong literally went from the jungles of Laos to the highways of America, life-changing events continue to be an emphasis in the Hmong church. Dowry and bride price are practices still followed. Some formalities have been terminated because of their demonic origins or immoral principles. The basis for these conclusions were rooted in a newly founded Christian worldview. Funerals and the ceremonies involved remain a sensitive topic. Many second-generation Hmong Americans are detached from these conversations, although they conform to the procedures. Maneuvering through these matters is best left with Hmong leaders versus decisions from The Alliance headquarters.

A challenging area is when the home office neglected areas of discipleship with Hmong Christians. While I appreciate the autonomy granted to the Hmong District, on the other hand, it hindered and continues to hinder the distribution of resources. Inadvertently, the independent atmosphere has erected silos; interactions have been complicated and uncluttering the confusion has been even more complicated.

With that said, I have witnessed the North Central District extend invitations to Hmong leaders. District churches opened their doors to Hmong believers permitting access to and use of their buildings. Our current place of worship is primarily used by an Ethiopian congregation. Regrettably, repeated responses from Hmong leaders are fears of assimilation or of being dismissed, and of cultural misunderstandings, such as the perception of Hmong meekness being mistaken for apathy or lack of thoughts. Second-generation Hmong Americans play a key role in bridging the gap. We nestle in the cloudy areas of communication between the cultures.

One of the difficulties I faced in the Hmong church was its ecclesial purpose and my own personal purpose as a follower of Jesus. My aim is not to be critical. Rather, it is to communicate my reflections.

Social collectivism is deeply embedded within Hmong culture. Hmong gather for a myriad of reasons and those reasons could seem trivial to an outsider. Lead pastors are expected to attend birthdays, graduations, and housewarming parties. Sermons may lack theological integrity, regularly becoming speeches on etiquette. Service and worship turn into pageants and talent shows. This bias might be based on my overriding American worldview or it might simply be a personal preference. Nevertheless, herein lies the root of the concern. Hmong Christians have unconsciously formed exclusive ideas.

Hmong are one of the largest unreached ethnic groups in the Twin Cities. Hmong churches rarely incorporate evangelism as a part of their mission. Is there a longing to reach other Hmong, or is it more important to keep the spectacle going? This may be a result of the lack of guidance, training, and discipleship from The Alliance at large. Listening to sermons and studying theology offered me directions for the intent of the church. Those topics were often neglected by Hmong churches and leaders.

I realize the church is a social assembly of believers. Be that as it may, church felt more like a family gathering versus an intentional assignment to advance God’s kingdom. This could be the individualistic culture drowning out the collectivistic mentality. It is a hard pill to swallow, but the next generation will be less Hmong than my cohort. Does it make sense to prepare for that rather than merely reacting to it?

Liminality can be an effective weapon if harnessed in a positive way. District leaders are nowadays deliberate in creating connections. This wave of younger leadership fosters collaboration. General Council 2019 had one of the largest turnouts of Hmong delegates. Hmong are going outside of their ethnic district into other districts and Christian & Ministry Alliance ministries. This is the beginning of a beautiful, intentional relationship. I believe Hmong experiences can help refugees whirling through American life. The future church is going to be more diverse.

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Second W. Yang

Second W. Yang has been married to his wife, Linda, for 19 years. They have four children: Grace (16), Audrey (15), Second Jr. (14), and Parker (9). He graduated from The University of Northwestern in St. Paul in 2017 with a MATS. He is the pastor at Central Mission Fellowship with The North Central District of the C&MA. He is bi-vocational and work as a Treasury and Cash Management Analyst for a national lumber company.

Katherina Vang

Katherina Vang (Kat) under the pseudonym of “Maivab” (pronounced My-ah, means baby in Hmong), is a Portrait Artist and Art Curator based from the Twin Cities (Mpls, St. Paul, MN) who graduated from Century College with an A.A.S. in Visual Communications Technologies with a Focus in Professional Photography. She is currently Founder and President of CAIM Magazine (a magazine focused on promoting minority and underground artists) and works at In Progress (a nonprofit organization that immerses itself into breaking down barriers of geography, class, education, and culture).

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