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Every tribe and tongue

Christianity has transformed many minority Hmong communities in Vietnam, and now the Hmong are spreading the Word

Every tribe and tongue

Hmong villagers read the Bible. (Courtesy of Kaley Payne/Bible Society Australia)

In a residential neighborhood in Hanoi, Vietnam, church leaders of the Dao ethnic group gather in a newly built classroom to learn about Christian leadership.

Afterward they stream downstairs to a communal kitchen where attendees of a women’s training program are eating lunch, the room filled with sounds of Vietnamese and the Dao’s local dialect.

This is Peter and Kim Dinh’s underground Bible school, which focuses on training ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Of the 1.57 million Christians in Vietnam, ethnic minorities make up 75 percent of that number, yet they face the greatest persecution and lack Christian resources (see “After the fall,” March 31, 2018). So the Dinhs (WORLD changed their names for their protection) have held Bible classes for the past 22 years, equipping more than 300 ethnic minorities in long-term courses and countless others in short-term trainings. They’ve watched as Christianity transformed not only individual lives but entire communities, especially within the Hmong people group: Of the more than 1 million Hmong in Vietnam, an estimated 400,000 are Christians.

The Hmong people live in Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand and are a subgroup of the Miao ethnicity in China. The Hmong in Vietnam encountered Christianity in the late 1980s through a Far East Broadcasting Company radio program. On the show, a Hmong pastor in California named John Lee read from the Bible and explained the gospel in the Hmong language. Whole villages accepted Christ as they found this Jesus more powerful than the ancestral spirits they had worshipped: He freed them from spiritual attacks and bondage.

Courtesy of Far East Broadcasting Company

John Lee (in blue shirt) meets with a group of Hmong that had come to Christ by FEBC broadcasts. (Courtesy of Far East Broadcasting Company)

Yet Lee didn’t realize he had an audience in Vietnam until he started receiving a flood of mail from new Hmong converts. On his broadcast, he urged them to find Vietnamese churches in Hanoi to learn more, and despite language differences, the churches were able to provide them with Bibles and train them to lead churches. The new converts faced heavy persecution from local authorities who feared the mass conversions to Christianity would bring about Hmong separatist movements. Authorities also barred Vietnamese pastors from teaching the Hmong.

Peter first met Hmong Christians at his Hanoi church in the mid-’90s. They were traveling south to the Central Highlands to escape government persecution and had stopped by Hanoi. During a conversation with one Hmong Christian who spoke a little Vietnamese, Peter gave him his Vietnamese Bible (which was then rare) and a hymnbook. Later Peter contacted some Dutch missionaries and asked them to sneak some Hmong-language Bibles into Vietnam. Because they could bring in only a limited number of Bibles, Peter made photocopies for the Hmong villagers, and the churches would take turns reading different books of the Bible.

At first Kim resisted the idea of ministering to ethnic minorities. Like most Vietnamese, she looked down on them as poor, uneducated people living in the mountains. Yet her husband Peter would often invite them to stay at their house and teach them the Bible. Kim, then 21, grew resentful: They were dirty, they didn’t have any money to reimburse them for room and board, and Kim felt she couldn’t spend the rest of her life constantly cooking and cleaning. In their fights, Peter would try to reason with Kim: “But God loves you and so you need to love others,” he said, praying that God would change her mind.

One day a Hmong visitor finished using the shower at the Dinhs’ house and put his dripping wet clothes back on. Kim asked why he didn’t put on clean clothes, and he responded that he didn’t own any other clothes. So Kim gave him her husband’s clothes to wear. When they sat down for dinner, tears streamed down the man’s face. “He thanked the Lord that He brought him here where he could learn the Word of God and had food to eat—in his house he didn’t have rice, only banana leaves,” Kim remembered. “He thanked the Lord who was so good as to save the Hmong people and give them freedom and eternal life.”

As Kim listened, she felt a pang in her heart thinking about her negative attitude toward the Hmong. That night she prayed God would change her heart and that she’d be able to joyfully serve them alongside her husband. Soon joy replaced her bitterness.

AT FIRST, THE DINHS HAD TO MOVE EVERY SIX MONTHS to avoid detection from local authorities. To evade unwanted eyes, the Hmong Christians snuck in late at night and stayed indoors while attending the Dinhs’ weeklong Bible training sessions. Many times, by God’s grace, the police showed up to search the house after the course had finished and could not find any evidence. Twice police showed up while they were teaching, and half of the 30-student class ran away, while the other half was detained at the police station for 24 hours.

Every time the students returned to the Dinhs’ house for more training, they would bring news of new church plants. The Dinhs also traveled to the villages to conduct training programs, trying to keep a low profile to hide from local police. When the police did show up, the entire class ran in different directions and locals hid the Dinhs. Sometimes they’d hold classes in remote areas that police had a difficult time reaching.

The Dinhs say on one occasion they were driving to a Hmong village in the midst of a large storm to deliver 1,000 Hmong Bibles when police stopped them and asked to search their vehicle. Peter refused and drove away. The police followed, but the pounding rain made the mountain roads so dangerous that they gave up pursuit.

The Dinhs drove on until they found the road blocked by a large downed tree. Peter called the Hmong Christians to come meet them, and together they cut off some branches of the tree. The Dinhs passed the Bibles over to the villagers, a task that took two hours, then got back in the car and drove home.

In her 22 years working with the Hmong, Kim has seen a great transformation: Because of their new Christian faith, the Hmong gave up their traditional practice of ancestor worship, which included expensive sacrifices that left them penniless. Hmong Christians now had money to feed their families and to increase their harvest.

Many Christians also learned to read and write Vietnamese by reading the Bible. Hmong children typically don’t stay in school for long, as they are needed in the fields to support the family, yet the Dinhs and other Vietnamese believers stressed the importance of education to Hmong believers. Today most Hmong graduate from high school, and some attend college or even get master’s degrees at the Bible school.

The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) denomination has 1,000 Hmong churches, 400 of which are registered with the government. Existing Hmong churches today face less persecution, although the police crack down when they plant new churches or when Hmong share the gospel with other tribes. “If a tribe just received Christianity, they will face fierce persecution,” Kim said. “But after a while, after they paid the price, they will be OK.”

The Dinhs’ Bible school, which invites overseas teachers to help train eight ethnic minority groups, has four different tracks: one for missionaries, one for women, a bachelor’s degree in theology, and a master of divinity. Through the resources and training from the Bible school, the Hmong have also been able to evangelize the nearby Dao tribe, which today has 24,000 believers. Christian Daos have gone on to evangelize other tribes.

Many Hmong and other minority groups are grateful to the Dinhs for helping them learn the Word of God. Kim brushes aside the praise: “Many missionaries both in Vietnam and overseas have prayed for the Hmong, God is just using us to reap the harvest.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.

Comments

  • THOMAS LAYMON
    Posted: Wed, 10/17/2018 09:39 pm

    The Christian  and Missionary Alliance reached out to the Hmong first in the late 1940's with the the first convert in1950.  As the communists took over Laos and Vietnam  the CM&A worked to rescue their church members and bring many to the US.  The work of FEBC was important  but not the first.  

    Thomas Laymon 

    Wilmington,  DE