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Tuesday, 26 June 2007 21:00

New pastors lead Hmong congregations

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Post-Crescent staff writer


They share the same last name. And they share the same Christian beliefs. Now Paul "Cher Pao" Thao of Appleton and Chia Thao of Green Bay share one more thing; ” pastoralships at Hmong congregations in the Fox Valley.

Paul Thao was ordained June 17 as pastor of the Hmong congregation at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Appleton. Chia Thao was ordained Sunday as pastor of the Fox Cities Hmong Lutheran Church, which meets at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Appleton.

"I understood that God the Holy Spirit was working," Chia said of his decision to enter ministry. "I am excited."

Much of the Hmong population in the United States still adheres to a traditional Hmong belief system, which is based on animism and ancestral worship, according to the Cultural Orientation Resource Center.

The most recent census reports 36,000 Hmong live in Wisconsin, with 5,000 concentrated in the Fox Valley. Less than a tenth worship as Christians, Chia said.

Animism, which dates back to the earliest humans, is the belief spirits and forces inhabit the universe. Some are protective while others are wild and living in caves, lakes, big rocks and other places. Through animism, the Hmong are encouraged to respect animals and nature and be in harmony with their environment.

"Everything has a spirit so Hmong worship (things like) trees," Chia said. "Maybe this big tree can protect them, or an animal. They say the river is big so we have to worship the river."

If a person inadvertently offends a spirit, it's believed the person will be cursed, resulting in illness or even death. Ordinary folks cannot see or communicate with the spirits so it's the job of a shaman (a spiritual healer who uses magic) to intercede.

"It is very different from what the Bible says that the only one is God, and we should not worship other gods," said Chia, who moved to the United States in 1985 when communists took over his homeland of Laos. "(The Hmong) say being a Christian is disrespectful.

"When you become a Christian you isolate yourself. You have to know how to approach (other people) by getting to know them and asking if it's OK to talk about Christ. You have to help them and ask them what they need. You have to not be afraid to approach people."

In 2003, after attending the Hmong ministry at Pilgrim's Lutheran in Green Bay, Chia said goodbye to the congregation and assumed his position as deacon of the newly planted Fox Cities Hmong ministry at Good Shepherd.

"A number of years ago, there was a group of people who said we have Hmong people moving here so let's provide a place where they can worship," said the Rev. Martin Koeller, pastor at Good Shepherd.

"They were able to set this up about five years ago."

Chia also enrolled in distance education through the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology offered by the St. Louis-based Concordia Seminary through an arrangement with Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod World Mission. The program was created for men providing pastoral leadership from within an ethnic community associated with the LCMS.

The EIIT's curriculum affords participants a Lutheran theological understanding of scripture. Courses are inquiry-based, meaning students explore theological issues as they pertain to a situation or current theological climate in North America.

"Now Chia will be ordained pastor here," Koeller said. "It is a brand new beginning."

Due to job layoffs and people leaving the area, membership at the Fox Cities Hmong ministry is currently down, but Chia is anxious to build it back up.

Paul "Cher Pao" Thao, who came to the U.S. in 1988 from a refugee camp in Thailand, graduated May 25 from the Pastoral Studies Institute of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in Mequon after studying with the satellite program there since 2001.

"Men like Paul Thao make it easy for me to promote the program," said Dr. E. Allen Sorum, director of the Pastoral Studies Institute of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Seminary. "White people see his heart and he inspires respect. His heart is what is providing the leadership for his people."

Raising pastors from different cultures came out of home mission efforts of the WELS.

"And the last thing you do is give to Asian guys or black guys or Hispanic guys or Caribbean guys, Apache guys all of whom are in our program curriculum that was developed for an Anglo, primarily suburban setting.

"The Hmong people who are coming from tribal life in Laos or refugee life in Thailand as immigrants to America, they are going to have a wide variety of different questions, needs and hurts, so we've developed curriculum with their assistance and input," Sorum said.

The Rev. John Baumann, evangelism outreach pastor at St. Paul's, has no doubt Paul will thrive as pastor of the Hmong congregation, which began developing in the summer of 1999. Since 2002 Paul, with the help of Hmong evangelist Thomas Thao, has grown the church, which now includes 107 baptized and 61 communicant Hmong members.

"Paul brings a shepherding heart," Baumann said. "He is very much interested in his people. He is very much interested in their spiritual welfare and even their physical welfare. So I think that is probably his greatest strength other than the fact he is a pretty smart fellow."

"If you are going to minister to a community, you have to be there for everyone in that community," Koeller said. "When we have Hmong living here you have to speak their language. (Chia) knows the love of Jesus and he wants to share that love with his people. And we still have a lot of people to reach. And he has the compassion to do that."

Said Chia: "We help them to understand God's words."