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Laotian Refugees Start and Join Churches

Laotian refugees and the Christians who befriended them are surprised at how God has joined together people and churches from different languages, religious assumptions, and life experiences. A feature story exploring the stories of Laotian refugees who have started and joined churches.

On a recent Sunday, four Laotian refugees served Communion, one in a Lutheran church, the others in a Christian Reformed church. Back in war-torn Laos, Khay Baccam, a savvy arms smuggler, had paid bribes to Kongkham “Kong” Saengthammavong, a powerful military policeman. A quarter-century later, Khay and Kong met again…in an American grocery store.

Kong got to know Keo Phommarath in the U.S., when they played in a party band. Tom LoVan recruited Keo to play keyboard at church. Keo admits to treating it as another gig and sometimes played while high. Tom pushed Keo to attend a conference, where Keo and Khay had an all-night conversation about Christ. A few years later, during a family crisis, Kong phoned Keo.

This all happened in northwest Iowa, where “who knows who” is often known as “Dutch bingo.”

The story of how Laotian refugees and Americans began to see themselves as brothers and sisters at God’s table has been duplicated across the U.S. and Canada. Relationships form as churches sponsor refugees from many nations and join with them in ministry.

Joy and love in action

Most Laotian refugees grew up as Theravada Buddhists or animists. They arrived without the language or mindset to understand their sponsors’ Christian concepts.

In such cases, actions speak louder than words. Sponsors usually commit to helping refugees become self-sufficient within about four months. But when Khay Baccam and his family arrived in Sioux Center, Iowa, in 1982, Faith Christian Reformed Church signed on for the long haul.

Two years into weekly meetings with a Faith member who helped him learn English, Baccam became a Christian. Now he’s on staff as a roving evangelist who helps train newer Laotian Christians, such as Keo Phommarath, who pastors Lao Unity Church in Sioux City, Iowa.

Phommarath’s only formal education was the four boyhood years he spent training to be a Buddhist monk. He says, “When first I talk to nonbelievers, I explain my background. I ask, ‘What do you believe? What is your hope?’

“People call themselves Buddhists but say, ‘All I know is I do good, I go to heaven.’ I ask, ‘Are we good enough to go to heaven?’ They say no. So I ask, ‘Then what?’ They say, ‘I don’t know if I go or not.’ I say, ‘You know what? Jesus, he knows we cannot do good enough. He loves us, dies for our sin. Whoever believes him, he forgives. Don’t you want a God like that?’

“It’s the Spirit of God, not me, who makes people believe. My job is to tell them who Jesus is.” The energetic pastor also interprets, helps with green cards and court dates, and befriends kids.

“In our worship, we have both languages together. We have a lot of materials in our own language—Lao Bible, hymnals, Bible handbook. We use the Heidelberg Catechism in our Bible study group. It has English on the left and Lao on the right. I also use the catechism’s questions and answers to work with young people that speak fully English,” he explains.

Lao Unity favors drum sets, guitars, basses—“all the music equipments that people who love music have. It is really helpful for to have young people worship the Lord. We have pretty joyful worship,” Phommarath says.

Christian and Southeast Asian

Like many Tai Dam refugees from Laos, Dinh VanLo went through culture shock in Iowa. “The people at Dordt College healed me. I was impressed with their kindness, peace, and love. But I didn’t want to lose my heritage.

“I started taking Bible lessons and reading the stories. I wanted to be like Joseph, who made himself great and helped his people in a foreign land. And it was very touching to read in Romans about how nothing can separate us from God’s love,” he says.

Finally he decided to be baptized with his wife and son. He worked 22 years in the Des Moines Public Schools and helps promote the proposed Tai Dam Village.

Even now VanLo muses, “It is hard to become a Christian. People laugh at you. You try to explain you are still who you are but have a different mission and vision in your life.”

Tom LoVan understands. “When you convert, you change society. It changes the holidays you celebrate and how you do weddings and funerals. These changes make some family members unhappy,” says the associate pastor of Morningside Lutheran Church in Sioux City, Iowa,

LoVan became a Christian in Laos. He has worked as a social worker and licensed family therapist, speaks five languages, has translated for two U.S. presidents, and loans his Southeast Asian art collection to museums. He’s steeped himself in Buddhist thought so he can help people compare Buddhism and Christianity.

“We have a trilingual service that uses Lao, Cambodian, and English. Our candles and the coverings on our altar and communion table have a more Asian flavor. For Communion, we sometimes put black bananas or coconut meat and coconut juice on the table. If Jesus had been born in Southeast Asia, he would not have said, ‘I am the Bread of Life.’ He would have said, ‘I am the Coconut of Life,’ ” he explains.

Musicians and songwriters in the trilingual service write worship songs in their first languages. They also translate popular songs like “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart” and use hymnals translated by the Southern Baptists.

Hope for the next generation

Passing on their faith to the next generation challenges many Asian American churches. “The majority under age 25 don’t speak Cambodian or Lao. They understand it some but prefer English. Because our Asian Christian adults aren’t confident in their Bible knowledge or English proficiency, they feel they don’t have the ability to teach,” LoVan says.

Children and teens from the trilingual service attend Sunday school and youth group along with other Morningside Lutheran kids.

Laotian kids, not adults, were the first to enter St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They came for social activities and homework help. The church hired Phetsamone Vannavong to reach out to Laotian adults.

“Lao adults begin worship together in the chapel but join everyone else in the sanctuary for Communion. Lao children and teens go to our English Sunday school and worship. Compared to adults, they make friends more early at church because they know each other from school or the neighborhood.

“My hope is to spread the Good News and help others, especially young people. Our goal is that children grow in faith and consider St. Paul’s as their home church,” Vannavong says.

Church Sponsors: North American Hearts Open to Laotians

James Calvin Schaap, a prolific author who teaches English at Dordt College, has written about Laotian refugees for decades, most recently in his book Crossing Over: Stories of Asian Refugee Christians.

Still, a recent joint service of Lao Unity and Faith CRC took him by surprise.

The next morning, after reading Psalm 121 Schaap wrote in his journal:  “Last night I was served the sacrament by two men who were once thugs, criminals—two men, who for many years, valued only their own skin…

“And all during those bloody years in war-torn Laos, where those two men grew up, God Almighty, who loves us….was watching them, keeping them from harm, when they—and we, all of us—were yet sinners. Last night, those two guys fed me the body and blood of Jesus. Amazing grace. What a celebration. Hallelujah, what a savior.”

The world at our doorstep

Whether in rural Iowa or a metropolis like Toronto, your church can sponsor or seek out refugees. Or you can connect with Christian immigrants, perhaps Korean Presbyterians, Sudanese Anglicans, or Chaldean Catholics from Iraq.

“The United States now has Christian movements and traditions from all over the world worshiping here. The variety is remarkable,” says Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity.

“It’s critically important for older churches to respond with hospitality and partnership. It is lonely enough to try to sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land. To be ignored and isolated by fellow Christians has to be doubly alienating. Immigrant Christians have wisdom to impart out of the depths of their struggles.

“Our faith and witness can be deeply enriched by being in fellowship and partnership with recently arrived believers,” he says.

Inch by inch, row by row

Ancestors of Faith CRC arrived in Iowa speaking only Dutch, hoping to someday farm their own land. That same patience marks ties between Dutch Americans and Laotian refugees.

Verlyn DeWit’s aunt helped Khay Baccam learn English. DeWit’s father-in-law hired Baccam to paint signs and machines in his vending business. “He was kind of a family friend. He felt obligated, and we expected him, to attend church,” recalls DeWit, a financial services consultant.

Al Mennega, a Dordt biology prof, learned rudimentary Lao to lead Bible studies. Khay Baccam translated the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort into Lao. He leads Bible studies and mentors Lao and Tai leaders within a day’s drive of Sioux Center.

Baccam helped Keo Phommarath plant Lao Unity Church in Sioux City, Iowa, where thousands of Southeast Asians work for meat processors. For six years, Bernie Haan, Faith’s minister of worship and administration, has met weekly with Baccam and Phommarath to discuss pastoring, preaching, and administration.

“Keo is so busy with diaconal responsibilities. He doesn’t have commentaries in Laotian. I serve as a walking commentary and help him develop sermon themes. Keo understands English pretty well, but sometimes Khay has to explain insights in Laotian,” Haan says.

Meanwhile, DeWit and other Faith CRC members formed a liaison committee to help Lao Unity computerize finances, elect a council, start an ESL program, take kids on outings…

When Lao Unity wondered how to fund a Lao New Year celebration as an outreach event, DeWit suggested taking up an offering. “They decided not to, because in Laos, Buddhist monks would use their position to fleece people. They didn’t want to give the wrong impression.

“The custom after council meetings at our church is to go around and shake everyone’s hand. It shows that even though you might have disagreed, we are still brothers and sisters in Christ. The choreography didn’t work at Lao Unity. I realized we were trying to impose a Dutch cultural convention on them.

“When our ancestors immigrated, the language and culture changes came more slowly. Lao Unity adults stay with the Lao language. But with TV and the internet, wow! The Laotian kids’ English is as good as mine,” DeWit says.

Getting to the heart

For three years, Phyllis Attema has driven an hour each Sunday from Sioux Center to Lao Unity’s 2 p.m. service. Worship starts in Lao and English for everybody. After an English sermon summary, kids and teachers (mainly volunteers from Faith) go downstairs for Sunday school. Adults remain for preaching and singing in Lao.

“We send out vans each Sunday. Many kids at the church have parents who don’t attend. Their parents sometimes discipline them by not letting them come to church.

“They’re coming because Pastor Keo has a heart for kids. And kids go where their friends are. All the Bible stories are new to them. We stick to the basic messages of salvation and creation-fall-redemption.

“We keep things friendly, welcoming, and safe. For some, this is their only exposure to Christian life. Kids have picked up on how and what to pray for. They may not be ready to lead prayers out loud but will read written prayers or use a psalm as a prayer. Pastor Keo also has them read Scripture at the start of worship,” Attema says.

She wonders where or whether English-speaking Laotians will worship after graduating from high school and Sunday school.

Meanwhile, she takes comfort in the stories of people now part of Lao Unity. “It’s awe-inspiring to see how the threads of God’s kingdom—so big and beautiful—intertwine over time in so many people and places,” Attema says.

Watching lives intertwine is also fun for Earl Walter, choir director at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“Kids introduced us to the Lao community. Then Phetsamone Vannavong developed mid-week socials and Bible studies for Lao adults. Gradually, Lao adults are joining in worship and some weeks we have more Lao kids than any others in Sunday school,” Walter says.

Though St. Paul’s Lutheran expects to build closer ties between Lao and English speakers, Walter says, “After church it’s all ‘SabaideeSabaidee’ (hello in Lao), with lots of laughing and smiling. And after years of casseroles and Jell-O, everyone loves getting egg rolls and Laotian rice and noodles at church potlucks.”

Learn More

Read about Keo Phommarath; how Khay Baccam (pp. 28-33) learned English and met Christ; Dinh VanLo, and Tom LoVan (scroll down to May 7 entry). Read articles about Lao Unity Church and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

Read and review Crossing Over: Stories of Asian Refugee Christians by James C. Schaap for your church library. Ask refugees, immigrants, and other church members to suggest books and movies about their ethnic groups.

Watch a 12-minute online documentary about Southeast Asian refugee journeys to the United States.

Online resources about Southeast Asian refugee concerns address bicultural parenting, Catholic insightson Laotian spirituality, Lao cultural values, and Lao people in Canada.

Listen to brief clips of traditional Tai Dam songs and Lao Lutheran music. Laotian churches from many denominations use music translated by Southern Baptists.

Learn how to include refugee concerns in worship and plant Laotian churches in North America. Also check out Asian American Religious Leadership, Asian-American Pastoral Leadership, and Lao Baptist Youth.

At Lao Unity Church, Phyllis Attema says they’ve had good results in Sunday school with adapting the Walk With Me curriculum and showing Ray Vander Laan’s Faith Lessons video series. Phetsamone Vannavong uses Mosaic Television DVDs to teach Lutheran basics.

Social and physical help is what first attracts many immigrants and refugees to church. Listen to an 8-minute radio clip about Chinese immigrants who attend Canadian churches to learn English and make Canadian friends.

Christianity has grown in Laos since 1980s because of some increased freedoms. Yet, according to Voice of Lao Christians and the U.S. State Department, Christians and churches still face persecution in Laos. Learn how Mennonites de-activate cluster bombs in Laos (pp. 4-15).

Browse related stories about global musicdrumming in worship, Korean American churchesReformed churches worldwide, and Christians in Mexico and the Philippines.

Start a Discussion

Talk about how refugees and immigrants might bless your church.

  • In what ways has your church gotten involved with refugees or Christian immigrants?
  • How might you welcome people from other countries into your congregation or support them as they establish new congregations?
  • What aspects of your worship, church life, staffing, and budget would have to change for you to make other nationalities feel more at home in your church?
  • What does the Bible have to say about welcoming strangers? How well do these biblical teachings mesh with your opinions or national policies regarding refugees and immigrants?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk about refugees or multicultural church initiatives? 

  • Did you join with people from another culture to host a film series using subtitled films? If so, which movies sparked the best discussions?
  • Have you truly taken the time to gather the stories of refugees or immigrants worshiping or served by your church?
  • Did you research the people groups in your neighborhood or city to seek out Christian immigrant congregations or underserved refugee groups who still need to know Christ? If so, will you share your survey method and results?