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Notebook Religion

Strangers no more

Paul Leclair (left) talks with a member of Redeeming Grace Church. (Mai Chong Yang)

Religion

Strangers no more

A custodian finds his calling to help three generations of Hmong in Minnesota 

Evenings find Paul Leclair cleaning the university campus in his custodian job in Bloomington, Minn. But Leclair, age 55, has another vocation: reaching the Hmong for Jesus.

He’d never heard of the Hmong until 1996, when he spoke to a co-worker from a group of foreigners whose home country he couldn’t place. He’d noticed how diligently and quietly they worked, but how lively they acted together at lunch. Leclair bluntly asked, “Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here?”

The man replied, “My name is Shua. We are Hmong. We are from Laos. And we are here because of the war.”

When Leclair queried, “What war?” the man just stared at him with hurt and anger, turned, and walked away. Stunned by his response, Leclair determined to research all he could about these people.

Historians trace the Hmong to ancient China. After centuries of conflict with Chinese imperialism, many migrated into mountainous, rugged regions of nearby countries, including Laos.

Fast-forward to the 20th century: In the early 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency began covertly recruiting Laotian Hmong to fight the spread of Vietnamese communism in Laos.

By 1973 communists had killed nearly 40,000 Hmong soldiers—an estimated quarter of Hmong males, including boys as young as 9. Tens of thousands of Hmong civilians also perished. The CIA didn’t acknowledge this 11-year “Secret War” until 1994. Even today, few Americans know of it.

After the United States pulled out of Laos, it airlifted top Hmong military officials to safety in Thailand. The remaining Hmong fled on foot as Laotian communists tried to exterminate them.

Many starved, died from diseases in jungles, or drowned crossing the Mekong River. Survivors escaped to refugee camps in Thailand where nongovernmental organizations cared for and helped relocate thousands. In 1975, churches in Minnesota started sponsoring Hmong refugees.

When Leclair learned all this, he was devastated: “I was working with these people who seemed happy, but many … had experienced horrific things.” He says God developed in him great affection for the Hmong.

Over time he befriended his Hmong co-workers, helping them navigate paperwork and problems. He joined them for lunch, learning about their culture and the shamanistic animism practiced mainly by the older generation. He observed weddings and funerals. He discerned that though many attended mainline churches that sponsored them, few knew Christ.

Leclair taught himself to read and write Hmong, a language whose written component began in the 1950s by missionaries in Laos.

He struggled to speak this tonal language, and demonstrated for me one syllable that has eight meanings depending on inflection. Providentially, he met a young Hmong student who agreed to teach him to speak Hmong if Leclair would teach him to read and write it.

A Hmong professor at the University of Minnesota also volunteered to tutor him. During the two-year process Leclair taught her about Christianity.

Students at work asked him to be their Hmong language club adviser. He continues to help this new generation read and write their grandparents’ mother tongue. After one student graduated recently, she went through the Gospel of John with Leclair, confessed Christ, and now attends a Hmong Bible church.

Today Leclair teaches Bible classes at this same church, Redeeming Grace, that meets afternoons in the building his former church worships in on Sunday mornings. Redeeming Grace strives to unite three generations of Hmong by preaching and teaching sound doctrine in both English and Hmong.

Leclair cites Leviticus 19:34: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and … love him.” More than 250,000 Hmong live in the United States. With the greatest Hmong metro population—about 80,000—living in the Twin Cities, Leclair sees many to love.