A Change of Faith for Hmong Refugees


Vang Ger is a practicing Presbyterian. A Hmong woman made refugee by the political events in Laos, she lives in Philadelphia with her husband and children. Her mother, likewise a refugee, lives upstairs. She does not attend church with her daughter. Neither does she perform the animist rituals she was brought up to believe in. She says she would carry on the traditional practices if her husband who is still in Laos were here. Vang Ger's grandmother died three months ago in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, Thailand. She had been a shamaness of the ancient Hmong religion since a long illness at age sixteen.


These women belong to a hilltribe which, having migrated south from China in the late 1800s, acquired a strange and varied fame during the century they farmed the mountains of Laos. Renowned for their fierce independence and strong sense of ethnic identity, the Hmong achieved economic self-sufficiency by producing an opium cash crop large enough to supply some 15% of the total revenue of the French government. Later, the same men so skilled in rudimentary slash-and-burn agriculture learned to operate sophisticated radio and military equipment, to guard their mountain existence. During the war in southeast Asia, large numbers of the Hmong formed the core of "the CIA's Secret Army," reputed to be one of the most, if not the only, effective guerrilla force in the area. But while some 40,000 Hmong men joined the Royal Lao/American alliance, thousands of others chose to fight for the Vietnamese-supported Pathet Lao.

Reprisals, aimed indiscriminately against the Hmong as a group, began after assumption of power in 1975 by the Pathet Lao. Ranging from political repression and forced internments in "re-education camps" to chemical warfare (the "yellow rain" attested to by medical personnel in Ban Vinai Camp), the campaign forced the Hmong, a race already decimated and dislocated by the war, to flee to Thailand. By 1980, more than 110,000 had crossed the Mekong; sources estimate that 20,000 died or were killed attempting to flee.

By 1981, some 45,000 Hmong had been resettled in the United States. If their connection to US military operations assured many Hmong entrance to the country, that exposure in no way prepared them for the Western society, a world dramatically different from the mountains of Laos.


By 1981, approximately 1000 Hmong hillspeople had settled in Philadelphia. The vast majority survived only with government aid - paying for their housing with welfare, their food with food stamps, their hospital costs with Medicaid. With their compatriots across the country, the Hmong in Philadelphia attempted to adjust to drastically new social, economic, and linguistic conditions. A rash of mysterious nighttime deaths among adult Hmong males - hypothetically caused by nightmares of their ordeal - highlighted the trauma of the transition.

Progress in adjusting was obvious among the Hmong in Philadelphia during 1981. The families who had been in the city for three or more years were better off than more recent refugees. The families still lived in poor sections of Philadelphia, but they had jobs, knew how to shop, spoke more English, and avoided dangerous streets. While in 1979, only 17.7% of the Hmong in the United States were employed, a 1981 sampling of 77 households in Minnesota found 66% of the males and 34% of the females holding jobs.

While trends in social and economic orientation have been recorded, no similar surveys have focused on the religious adaptation of the newcomers. The subject is a difficult one to reduce to numbers or graphs: it concerns the spiritual readjustment of a people. This readjustment is illustrated by the beliefs of three generations of Vang women.

The Traditional Religion

Vang Ger's grandmother was a shamaness of the ancient religion of the Hmong people. This religious system recognizes a duality of body and soul. The Hmong religion blends animism, which provides a practical "body" of rules and regulations, with shamanism, which supplies a theory of the soul. Animism posits an "animated" universe in which humanity can dwell happily only by dwelling harmoniously. It supplies guidelines for safe behavior among a myriad of spirits and forces. Shamanism complements animism, for while the latter includes basic rules of conduct, standard rituals, and the elementary interpretation of dreams and omens, only the shaman can see, understand, and communicate with the supernatural. It is the shaman then who guides the dead to rest, who heals the sick (since illness is usually caused by some conflict between the person and the spirits), and who guides the community to auspicious activities. Although other peoples have combined animism and shamanism, the Hmong system, originally developed in China, provided and still provides in southeast Asia a belief system specifically suited to traditional Hmong society.

The Hmong in Philadelphia

The Christianity chosen by Vang Ger and the religious ambivalence shown by her mother contrast dramatically with the belief system espoused by the shamaness grandmother. Refugees, social workers, community and religious leaders estimate that about 30% to 50% of the Hmong are associated with a Christian church and agree that most of the remaining 50% to 60% "do nothing."

The Loss of the Traditional Faith

The Hmong unanimously assert that there are no shamans or ua nengs in Philadelphia. If Nusit Chindarsi's approximation that one shaman exists for every 100 Hmong is correct, there may be as many as ten ua neng refugees. Since it is probable that the city holds at least a few shamans, the amount to which they have cancelled or curtailed their activities is remarkable.

It is hard to ignore the embarrassment which many of the refugees in Philadelphia manifest if asked about the ua nengs. A woman who has been in the US for four years says her people are frightened of neighborhood reaction if they were to depend on shamans - Americans, they fear, would regard the Hmong as crazy were they to beat on gongs, dance, and perform animal sacrifice.

The difficulty of performing such practices within an American society indicates a profound problem: for a people seeking to maintain harmony with their surroundings, practices incompatible with those surroundings are inadmissible.

As the central religious figure, the shaman faces the most severe challenge: in Laos, his skills were unquestionably potent; in the US, the doctor and the minister have replaced his expertise. As George Scott found in his work among the Hmong of San Diego, while many refugees reason that spirits may be as ubiquitous in the US as they are in Laos, they conclude, "They are not our spirits; we don't know them, nor do they know us. So how can they affect us, and us them?"

Yet it is astounding to imagine a people divorcing themselves, within a few years, from a religious tradition of centuries and distancing themselves from honored religious leaders. The Philadelphia Hmong agree that some shamans may be practicing in the larger Hmong communities of California, Montana, and Minnesota. Almost all the Americans closely involved with the refugees add that some animist practices continue within the city; they have a "feeling" or have heard rumors that there are shamans "around." But the involvement of most households does seem to be minimal.

Incidents of stress, sickness, and death indicate that while the Hmong retain their animist concerns, they have lost or abandoned their animist leaders and ritual responses. This leaves the Hmong with serious anxieties but no way to resolve those tensions. Thus Hmong refugees come to Christian ministers pleading for animist advice. One minister performing a funeral service described the Hmong as desperate for "ritualistic" and "God-appeasing" suggestions: which were the clothes, prayers, and corpse orientations that would best help the soul of the dead child? Hmong seem most attracted to the rituals of certain ministers who emphasize candles, colors, and ceremony.

The religious disorientation exhibited by the refugees is in strong contrast to centuries-old Hmong behavior in China and Laos. There, a strong sense of ethnic identity, a reluctance to assimilate, a high mobility, and the isolation of the hill communities insulated and guarded the identity of the Hmong religion. In the US, however, the sponsoring system of resettlement has consistently stressed adaptation and adjustment rather than enforcing ethnic identity. The dependence of the refugees on sponsors, social agencies, and public aid has drastically reduced their mobility and rendered isolation from Americans virtually impossible. (The Hmong resettled before 1977 were scattered throughout the country to avoid burdening particular communities. Though the policy was soon abandoned, these Hmong were isolated from each other rather than from Americans.) With the insularity of the old faith thus destroyed, most Hmong have chosen to suspend animist/shamanist practices.

The Country of Christianity

Plunged into a society which is either secular or Christian but far from animist, the Hmong assume the exteriors of the Americans around them - either religiously ambivalent or Christian. The Hmong in Philadelphia frequent five churches. One is Roman Catholic, the rest Protestant - Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, and Christian and Missionary Alliance. According to the pastors' own estimates, a total of 580 refugees are associated with the churches. Their involvement ranges from picking up clothes and furniture donations to attending bible classes and services, becoming baptized members of the congregation, and acting as interpreters, readers, and ministers.

The ministers recall that the Hmong joined the churches in two groups. The majority of the first wave of refugees had been Christian in Laos. Although most Hmong recall only "the missionary" and not his denomination, American ministers suggest that the proselytizing had been most often Protestant, carried out largely by the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

Such exposure undoubtedly influences Hmong affiliation in Philadelphia, where the majority choose Protestant rather than Catholic Christianity. While three churches were sought out by the Hmong independently, many refugees sponsored by religious organizations have accepted the denomination of their hosts. Here again the Protestant choice predominates, for most Protestant sponsors are individual churches. Catholic sponsorship tends to be less personal because it is often executed by a larger voluntary agency. Lastly, even Catholic Hmong avoid those Catholic churches frequented by ethnic Vietnamese, preferring to walk considerable distances to attend other parishes.

Turnover in the original Hmong congregation has been high. One minister estimates that 300 Hmong came to his church initially. Although most were already Christian, he baptized 80% of the 100 Hmong who became regular members. About 50 of that group maintain contact with the church, with some thirty attending services regularly. Some Hmong have moved out of Philadelphia while others have quietly dropped out, often about a month after baptism.

The churches have responded by beginning bible study groups, which now draw higher attendances than the services. Although most of the clergy depend on Christian Hmong to translate and interpret, the language barrier continues to be significant. An English teacher at Philadelphia Community College who attended bible class with some of her students estimated they could comprehend 40%, at best, of-the proceedings.

But the obstacles to understanding are not only linguistic. American Christianity assumes a Western orientation and a store of cultural knowledge alien to the Hmong. Theologies rendered in Hmong remain hard to convey across such a barrier.

This is an issue to which the Christian churches have responded variously. One pastor interviews those ready for baptism through an interpreter for up to six hours, to confirm the candidates' comprehension of their new creed. Other ministers are less thorough. Still others may be less scrupulous: widespread rumors suggest that at least one church pressures refugees into attendance, baptisms, and financial contributions, apparently by implying that it can influence welfare payments.

Several pastors agree that the Hmong's comprehension of Christian ideology varies as widely as the responses of the churches. Some Hmong, especially those with a long exposure to Christianity, have not only a devout attitude but a detailed knowledge of the faith. The majority of ministers, however, suggest that most of the refugees attend because of a desire for community, not doctrine.

Supplying community is, of course, far from incompatible with the dissemination of doctrine. The teacher in a Philadelphia bible class emphasizes the ability of her church to supply a support group by equating baptism with joining "the big family." She continues, "There are lots of churches. You choose the church you like best. That's why you are here. You like it here. You are comfortable here. You want to be part of our church family."

Christianity attracts because it offers the support and "belonging" of a community. It also holds an additional appeal of which its own ministers may not be aware. The Hmong religion emphasized equilibrium within the universe: people kept that balance by appeasing the forces around them, achieving harmony by responding to locally revealed phenomena. Christianity benefits from such an ideology - it is attractive because of its evident compatibility with Western life. As one refugee explained, the Hmong convert because they realize that Christianity is the religion of the United States. It offers a way to coordinate everyday life - as well as events like birth, marriage, and death - in a universe which, in America, might just have an American god. To put it in terms of their older tradition, to live harmoniously in the new country is to follow the new faith.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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