Visiting the Hmong church in Albemarle is like visiting a bit of Asia — the people, their language and their artfully embroidered clothing styles all seem different from most Burke County residents.
But talk a bit and you quickly find these modest, friendly people have much in common with North Carolina Baptists. In fact, they may have a thing or two to teach us about the gospel.
Pastor Neng Hue Yang and his wife, Carine, lead Hmong (pronounced MONG) congregations in Albemarle and Monroe, working to reach the estimated 3,000 Hmong people living in the area for Christ. The Yangs are receiving financial support from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, whose church planting ministry is funded through the Cooperative Program and the North Carolina Missions Offering.
The Yangs came to the United States in 1979 from Laos, a country in Southeast Asia which borders China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Historically the Hmong people lived in southwest China, but in the 1700s many began migrating to surrounding countries.
In 2008 the Yangs moved to North Carolina, which ranks fifth among U.S. states in Hmong settlement, with the state’s total number of Hmongs estimated at more than 8,000 by a 2006 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Some 500 Hmong refugees settled in North Carolina in 2004, joining about 300,000 Hmongs already living in the United States, according to a 2004 report by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
“These are hardworking people who have demonstrated an ability to become contributing members of our communities, finding jobs and paying taxes,” said Carmen Hooker Odom, then secretary of the department.
Pastor Yang estimates almost half the Hmong people of North Carolina live in the Hickory-Statesville area. One Hmong publication reported that two-thirds of the foreign-born children in Burke County schools are Hmong.
Many Hmong people arrive in America after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand or other Asian countries.
In Asia many Hmong people are farmers in background and often face persecution for being a minority group there. They come to America seeking political freedom and economic opportunity.
But Pastor Yang wants his people to have spiritual freedom as well.
“I wanted to be a pastor because I want people to have a better life. I want them to be saved. I want people to have hope. I want people to be in heaven when they die,” he said.
The religion most Hmong people follow is animism, which means worshipping spirits which may live in rocks or trees.
When a Hmong person becomes sick, the family often will sacrifice a cow or pig to appease the spirits they believe creating the sickness.
“When we sacrifice animals to atone for a disease or sickness, that does not work,” Yang said.
“I guess Satan is also very smart. One day when they sacrifice that person became well, but it’s only for a few days and then the same thing (sickness) comes back and they do a sacrifice again. Back in Laos many people sacrifice and so it gets expensive. It gets so expensive they cannot afford to buy the animals to sacrifice for their family members and sometimes they would sell off their children just to buy a cow or pig, just to sacrifice for their loved one, and it is an on-going routine that will never end,” he said.
In fact, one reason many Hmong families settle in North Carolina is so they can buy farm land on which to raise animals which they will sacrifice to the spirits.
But Yang said the gospel delivers people from that kind of bondage, which is very similar to the situation first-century Christians were liberated from after they accepted Jesus Christ as Savior.
“We want them to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. We want them to know that Christ is the Savior of the world and that He has died for our sins and we don’t need to be in bondage any more,” he said.
“Jesus Christ has made the final sacrifice and we can be free in Him. We don’t need to sacrifice any more animals. Christ is the best sacrifice for us and He has done once and for all. If we just believe in Him and just trust Him and just obey Him, then we are free from all that religion.”
When he and his wife, Carine, visit Hmong families, Yang said, “The Hmong people are very friendly when you come to their house. They will welcome you and offer you food and water. The lady of the house will start cooking a meal for the visitors.”
But the Yangs soon turn the conversation toward spiritual matters. “We were once like you, and we have been delivered from all these sacrificial religions. Christ has delivered us and we have been set free, and Christ can do the same for you,” Yang tells people.
Positive response to the gospel is a cause for joy, the Yangs say.
“I love the people here, and it’s just a good feeling to know that they are saved. And it will be wonderful to have more people saved as well. So it is a challenge, but it is also a great reward,” Yang said.
“We want to say ‘thank you’ to the Baptist State Convention for supporting our mission here in Albemarle.
Because of your support we can reach out to the Hmong community in this county and tell them about Jesus Christ. So thank you for your support and your prayers,” Yang said.
Pastor Yang is among some 170 church-planting missionaries supported by North Carolina Baptists through the Cooperative Program and North Carolina Missions Offering. The convention started 108 new churches in the state during 2008, an average of a new church every three days.
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