A new Hmong Mennonite church building was dedicated Nov. 23 in Thailand during a weekend that marked multiple beginnings.
The village of Nahongtai near the Myanmar border has a new church building, and an international partnership has a fresh start.
The Hmong are an ethnic group from Southeast Asia’s mountainous regions. A half dozen Hmong Mennonite congregations are spread across the U.S. and Canada.
Hmong Mennonite Churches Mission, working with other U.S. Mennonite churches, Mennonite Mission Network and the Schowalter Foundation, supported the new church’s construction, which took years.
“You can’t get a concrete truck there. They had to mix concrete one bucket at a time, the women scooped sand from the riverbank and hauled it by buckets,” said Jeff Wintermote, pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Hillsboro, Kan., who has been involved with Hmong projects in Southeast Asia since 2005. “This is jungle, way off the beaten track.”
For Jonah Yang, president of Hmong Mennonite Churches Mission, the church’s completion was the launching pad for a bigger plan.
“Our goal is not just for that church but also to go to another place and establish another congregation,” said Yang, also pastor of Hmong New Hope Mennonite Church in Fresno, Calif.
But there was a problem. Because of strict government rules concerning Christian churches, the Hmong churches can only realize more autonomy within the state-approved Churches for Christ in Thailand by having their own district.
They must grow larger to have their own district, which they would like to achieve by 2020. Some of the district requirements include building a district office and starting more self-supporting churches.
Since 2010, there have been differences of opinion between Thai and North American Hmong about how that goal can be reached, in addition to disagreements about wider priorities such as leadership and theological training.
North American Hmong — many of whom emigrated from Laos after working with the CIA during the Vietnam War — are decades removed and “Americanized,” widening a cultural gap.
It didn’t help that non-Hmong like Wintermote and Kuaying Teng — director of Asian ministries for Mennonite Church USA and MMN — don’t speak Hmong and rely on translators. Meetings sometimes didn’t have full attendance. Decisions weren’t formalized on paper, and small issues grew over time.
Teng and Wintermote continued with trips to Thailand to maintain relationships. On Nov. 24 all parties gathered for a meeting about the Thai Hmong’s vision for the future. Teng had taught a workshop a few days earlier on Anabaptist history and theology based on Palmer Becker’s What Is an Anabaptist Christian? Each group spoke of their hopes and acknowledged their roles in past misunderstandings.
The meeting sparked new emphasis on communication. A memo of understanding concerning Thailand is being produced and will be translated into Thai, Hmong and English.
North American Hmong will require a smaller ownership stake in a potential dormitory and/or district office — a key component of government recognition. The North Americans can support that vision, but they realize they cannot manage each detail.
“How are we going to travel over there to do that?” Yang said. “I want to see how we can help them to help themselves. If we want to sponsor someone to come over and learn here, that person should be able to help someone else somewhere else.”