Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Their religion was Animist in SE Asia; Lutheran grace has caught them in Minnesota

Hmong families are half the membership at Luther Memorial Church, North Minneapolis

An aging Lutheran congregation on the north side of Minneapolis is renewing itself through its growing ministry to Hmong members, including many young families.
Membership at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church (ELCA) had been declining through the 1980s and ’90s. “I was asked by the synod to come here to close up this parish seven years ago,” says Pastor Carol Stumme.

Instead, she says, “We’ve been attracting first and second generation Hmong Christians for whom the Gospel is a new story. I’m finding that this keeps preaching interesting. The sense of God’s grace is important to give to the Hmong. They have a lot of fears within their culture.”

According to best estimates, between 65,000 and 70,000 Hmong live in the Twin Cities metro area, including at least 5,000 arrivals since the 2000 U. S. Census. “Hmong people are from Laos,” Stumme has learned. “These are the ones who protected and fought for the U.S. in the Viet Nam War. Our government promised them a place here.”

Congregational renewal began when, soon after Stumme’s arrival, she started working with a Hmong Girl Scout troop and saw the opportunity to welcome Hmong to Luther Memorial. “This is a beautiful little church, easy to operate. The neighborhood is diverse — about 30% Caucasian; 30% African American; and 30% Southeast Asian.”

Many long-time members decided to stay. “On a Sunday morning we average around 75 in attendance, about 50% Hmong,” Stum-me says. “The Hmong want to keep this a multi-cultural congregation. They are realistic about the world they live in. Services are in English, except for one Hmong service a month. The Gospel reading and prayers are in both English and Hmong.

Sharing preaching re-sponsibilities with Stumme are Bee Vang, pastoral associate, and Nengyia Her, Hmong outreach director. Both attend Luther Seminary in St. Paul. “I preach once a month in English, and I alternate preaching the Hmong sermon with Neng-yia,” Vang says.

A graduate of Concordia University, St. Paul (LCMS), Vang did an internship at Luther Memorial Lutheran in 2001. “Pastor Carol and her husband, Pastor Wayne Stumme, took me under their wings and mentored me,” he says.

In addition to leading worship and continuing his seminary studies, Vang works with youthful Hmong members of the congregation, ages 13 through college years. “We meet every other Friday evening, either for Bible study, to eat out, to see a movie or for other activities they choose.” For younger children, Pastor Carol Stumme offers a Saturday program, “The Growing Tree.”

A lot of Hmong youth have parents who were born and raised in a different country, according to Vang. “Parents have traditional expectations, but the teen-agers are learning new styles of living from their friends. The church provides a place where they can socialize with peers and also learn the story of Jesus Christ. We have Confirmation students whose parents still practice their traditional religion, which is Animist.

“We’re beginning a music ministry that we hope will draw more youth. We plan to include instrumental and vocal music in both Hmong and English. Our young people are fluent in both languages.”

Nengyia Her attends seminary part-time and works at Lutheran Social Service in South Minnea-polis. He came to Minnesota in 1986 from a resettlement camp in Thailand. He and his wife, Mee, have six children ranging in age from 11 to 21. In 2001 Pastor Carol Stumme invited them to Luther Memorial Lutheran Church.

“This is a very welcoming church to new people,” Her says. “My kids have told me, ‘Dad, we’re glad you made the decision to come here.’ The members are older, but they have new ideas. This church opens up a new understanding of Christ.”

Her and Vang both teach in a summer program in Hmong literacy held at Luther Memorial, funded for one year by a McKnight Foundation grant, then renewed for another three. ”We teach children and youth,” Her says. “They grow up speaking Hmong at home and learn English in school. We teach them to read and write Hmong, encouraging them to stay bilingual.”

Hmong is an old language in its spoken form, but not in its written version. “Modern Hmong is about 55 years old,” Her says. “Until the 1950s there was no alphabet available for writing in Hmong.” Selected Hmong high school and college students assist in the summer program, which draws between 35 and 40 participants.

“Our young Hmong families have a loyalty to this church, and trust is growing,” Stumme says. “One of the nicest comments I’ve heard is, ‘Luther Memorial is providing strong Hmong leadership for the church.’”