This article, Hmong Religious Life and Customs, by Daniel Taillez, OMI and Rev. Jerry Orsino, OMI, is third in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of Southeast Asian Catholics in the United States. Information for this article about the Hmong from Laos was gathered from the writings of Rev. Daniel Taillez, OMI and Rev. Jerry Orsino, OMI, both former missionaries in Southeast Asia.
Hmong people came originally from several southern provinces of mainland China. In the middle of the nineteenth century, thousands of Hmong migrated to the highlands of North Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, and are therefore known as a highland tribe. Hmong were sometimes called "Meo" in China, Thailand, and Laos, but this name has a pejorative connotation and should not be used. By 1975, there were up to 250,000 Hmong in Laos. For more than three decades, the Hmong who lived in Laos fought the Vietnamese communists. After Laos collapsed, they fled in great numbers to Thailand, and between 1976 and 1985, thousands of Hmong came to the United States. Even as late as 1996, several thousand Hmong refugees entered the United States.
Presently, there are between 100,000 and 140,000 Hmong in this country of which an estimated ten percent are Catholics. Although they are spread out in twenty-four states, the majority of Hmong are in California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In other states like North and South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, there are Hmong communities numbering between two and three thousand persons.
To understand Hmong Catholics, one must remember that in general, as far as their religious background is concerned, the Hmong are animists. According to their beliefs, for instance, the reason one becomes ill or suffers misfortune is because a spirit has left the person's body. It is necessary, then, to offer some sacrifice and to call in the shaman (who may be a man or woman) who will invite the spirit to return. Consequently, a shaman's role is very important in the village and also in the adopted country of the refugee or immigrant. The shaman will keep the peoples' lives filled with harmony with nature and with the real world of the spirits.
The wedding, birth, and funeral customs of the Hmong are quite different from the usual American customs. The Hmong usually marry at a very early age and must marry a person of another clan. It is their custom that after a brief courtship, the boy, with his companions, "kidnaps" the girl and after a time together will negotiate the bridal price which his family is obliged to pay along with the wedding expenses. This kidnapping is an accepted custom and not rare even among the Hmong in the United States. A Hmong baby is said to be sent into this world by a "Baby Goddess." Three days after its birth, the family offers sacrifices to ask the soul of the baby to enter its body. It is given a name and introduced to the household spirits who will protect him/her. It is of great importance to the Hmong to have a proper funeral so the soul may prosper in the afterworld. It is the custom that after the death of an infant, the mother sings to the baby; the son sings to his mother. At the time of death, everyone from the person's village will attend the funeral services and will present a gift of money to the family. Even in the United States, it is not uncommon to see people originally from the same village in Laos travel hundreds of miles to pay their respects.
When the Hmong started coming to the United States in the late 1960s and early '70s, some former catechists from Laos approached the parishes or dioceses where they settled. They requested the services of priest missionaries whom they had known in their native land. Rev. Daniel Taillez, OMI began serving the Hmong in the mid-West and South in 1981, and Rev.Umberto Nespolo, OMI took over the responsibility of Hmong on the West Coast in 1984. Later, an American priest, Rev. William Tanguay received permission to minister with the Hmong on the East Coast, and Revs. Joe Hirsch and Woody Pace began working with the Hmong in Wisconsin. In 1992, Rev. Chue Ying Vang became the first Hmong priest ordained in the United States. Recently, three Hmong deacons were ordained to serve in this country, and ten Hmong catechists minister in their communities.
The influence of these missionaries and Hmong ministers has been very helpful. For example, the Church adapted the beautiful traditional Hmong songs and customs for use in liturgies celebrated with the Hmong communities. Even non-Catholic Hmong are impressed by the Catholic Church's efforts in regard to inculturation, and in fact often "borrow" these Catholic Hmong hymns and prayers for use in their own churches.
For the Hmong, their New Year, which usually begins in December, is the most important religious celebration. Offerings are made to the spirits and ancestors to insure good fortune for the coming year. Rice and eggs are blessed to ask God's blessing.