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Hmong pastor leads multicultural Minneapolis congregation

Christians are supposed to welcome strangers — yet that can be difficult when newcomers begin to outnumber longtime church members. U.S. Lutherans and other Christians are well into a prolonged period of such blending.
December marked a milestone: The Rev. Nengyia Her was ordained and at the same service installed as pastor at Luther Memorial Church. The 200-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregation in north Minneapolis has Hmong and European-descended members in about equal numbers, with a few African-Americans and Latinos in the mix.

Minneapolis Area Synod Bishop Craig Johnson and the Rev. Carol Stumme, long-term interim pastor of Luther Memorial Church, Minneapolis, install the Rev. Nengyia Her as new pastor there. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen.

Minneapolis Area Synod Bishop Craig Johnson and the Rev. Carol Stumme, long-term interim pastor of Luther Memorial Church, Minneapolis, install the Rev. Nengyia Her as new pastor there. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen.

In Acts 2, Jews from many nations heard Peter’s great sermon in their own first language. Pastor Her expects no such miracle — he will preach both in English and, twice a month, in Hmong. “Very complicated,” he acknowledges. Yet he knows how to proceed. “Listen to the newcomers,” he urges, “because they have something to teach.”
Many congregations are looking more like ethnic checkerboards, and at least two other Hmong have been ordained as Lutheran pastors, including the Rev. William Siong At Hmong Central Lutheran Church (ELCA), St. Paul.

Many congregations are looking more like ethnic checkerboards.

Luther Memorial’s situation may lend itself to the unusual circumstance of a Hmong shepherd leading a mixed flock. Pastor Her is known there, as a member since 2001 and for several years as its leader of outreach to the Hmong community in the neighborhood. The church’s long-term interim pastor will continue as associate. “I’m happy he’ll be the pastor,” says the Rev. Carol Stumme, age 77, Luther Memorial’s interim pastor for the past decade. “I will be the helper.”
Pastor Her has the right touch, she thinks. Leaders must remember that “this is a faith to share with all people,” says Pastor Stumme. Pastor Her understands “what grace is all about,” she adds. “He’s going to be a good leader.”
Moreover, she anticipates that Pastor Her will find full roles for women at Luther Memorial — a potential challenge because traditional Hmong culture is patriarchal. Pastor Stumme thinks her own stint as pastor showed Hmong members that women can lead.
A long road to the pulpit
Born in a village in northern Laos in 1957, Pastor Her once taught school there. In the difficulties of those times he managed to make his way in 1983 to the Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. Coming to the United States in 1986, he was baptized here in 1987 and joined Luther Memorial as a member in 2001, soon working as its director of Hmong outreach.
Meanwhile, he enrolled at Luther Seminary in St. Paul under its Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) program, graduating in 2009. Helping provide for his wife and six children as he attended seminary was a challenge, he says. Their youngest now is in high school.
Bishop Craig Johnson of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA expresses “great joy in the courageous journey that Nengyia Her has taken to become a pastor. The whole synod is thrilled with this event.”
Splicing cultures in the pews is not a step to be taken lightly. The Rev. Stephen Bouman experienced several such efforts as bishop of New York City from 1996 to 2007. Now executive director of evangelical outreach and congregational mission for the ELCA in Chicago, Bouman says the move requires careful leadup. “The congregation has to invest in a long process of listening in the community, one-on-one with the new neighbors,” he says. “Creating relationships even before the ministry happens.”
Nor can just any congregation absorb a group of newcomers. It must “internally be ready for company,” says Bouman. Existing members must “be nimble, to not just have people join their thing but to let the community become something that reflects the gifts and cultures of the folks who are joining — and that’s a tough process.”
The gospel that’s relevant to all
Fail or succeed, the process is a great living Bible lesson. “You’re in the Word, you’re in scripture, all the time,” says the Rev. Bouman, “and you’re seeing the universality of the Gospel. Bible study just comes alive when you’re at a moment of mission and change in your congregation.”
ELCA leaders acknowledge the complications of adding new cultural layers when the church is already in turmoil about difficult issues including gay clergy. The Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn, ELCA’s Director for Asian and Pacific Islander Ministries, offers this guidance to congregations encountering a decision on immigrant communities: gospel first. Gospel and culture are “intertwined,” he says, but if you must choose, says Pastor Limthongviratn, “go with the gospel and not with the culture.”
You may need the guidance of gospel even in little things — such as booking space. Is the newcomer group teaching culture to its young people? Another church group may have to accommodate them and meet elsewhere or at a different time.
Pastor Her’s approach is that we can all learn from one another. “Listen,” he says, “to the other side of the story.”

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