Sacrifices at Funerals? Culture Is Changing

Post a Comment » Written on March 22nd, 2006     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

ST. PAUL, MN (March 22, 2006) – The Hmong woman asked how many cows should be sacrificed for her father’s funeral. That was not a question for which Pastor Anne Vining’s Protestant seminary training had prepared her.

The pastor of First Covenant Church is well-versed in Scripture. She has planned and led worship, blessed many church suppers, arranged and preached at funerals, and participated in community gatherings where not everyone identified themselves as Christians.

What she had never done until last November was help plan and participate in a Hmong funeral that lasted four days and attracted 5,000 people, all of whom needed to be fed for the duration and many of whom practiced Shamanism, a religion that is rooted in honoring spirits. Of course, there were the cow sacrifices. Oh, and one more thing – Vining didn’t speak the language.

Increasingly the call is being sounded for churches to work towards becoming multiethnic and thus, more cross-cultural. Some churches intentionally are started with those goals in mind, but others such as First Covenant Church are increasingly diverse because their neighborhood is changing. Though the Hmong funeral may be an extreme example, it represents some of the challenges that today’s church faces in learning to minister among people of new and different cultures.

“Multiethnic churches are difficult,” says Greg Yee, the director of leadership and congregational development for the Pacific Southwest Conference. “It’s difficult because churches naturally become more insular over time.” There are an abundance of sociological, psychological and theological issues that congregations need to work through, he adds.

Although First Covenant is in the Northwest Conference, Yee had heard about the work the congregation was doing to reach out to different ethnic groups, including the Hmong. “It’s an exciting story,” he says.

In 1990, the neighborhood in which First Covenant is located was 89 percent Anglo, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. By 2000, that number had dropped to 49 percent, Vining notes.

The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group whose homeland is in the mountainous regions of southern China, primarily in Guizho province. The Hmong population crosses into Southeast Asia, including northern Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The Hmong in the United States came mainly from Laos (through Thailand refugee camps) following the Vietnam War.

Today, there are an estimated 180,000 Hmong living in this country, largely concentrated in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California. With 60,000 Hmong residents, St. Paul is home to the world’s largest concentration of Hmong.

The funeral was for Nhia Her Lo, a 93-year-old man who was considered the leader for much of the local Hmong community. “He was so well-respected and revered,” says Vining. He was one of the first to leave Laos for America as Communism was overtaking the Southeast Asian country, where he had helped Americans lead a secret war.

Paul DeNeui, an Evangelical Covenant Church missionary to Thailand, is spending the year in Chicago teaching at North Park Theological Seminary. Although DeNeui did not work with the Hmong in Thailand, he traveled to St. Paul several times to help Vining work with the families in arranging the funeral. Nhia Her Lo had 21 children from three wives, two of whom had died in childbirth. He was survived by his wife, Kia Xiong Lo, to whom he had been married for more than 50 years.

Funerals are among the most important rituals in Hmong life, Vining says. “One of first questions the Hmong asked her when she arrived at the church three years ago was whether she would do Nhia Her’s funeral when that time came.

Because Nhia Her wanted a Christian funeral, Vining and DeNeui had to figure out appropriate ways to adapt certain elements of the traditional Hmong funeral into a Christian context. Deep divisions among Hmong Christians and Shamanists often led to fistfights at funerals, DeNeui says. Deep divisions existed, in part, because Christians were seen as demanding that Shamanists leave their entire culture, including the rituals.

Shamanists believe spirits control everything, says DeNeui. “The leader of the community would tell people what is required of the spirits. Every important aspect of life is surrounded by a ritual.”

The traditional funerals last three to four days and require the family to pay for feeding everyone who attends. (Attendees often contribute to the cost as they arrive). People try to eat as much as possible to feed the spirits, says DeNeui. To accommodate everyone, funeral homes that cater to the Hmong are as large as warehouses, he adds.

DeNeui says it was important to determine “what part of these rituals could we use to glorify God, and what would not be allowed.” They did allow several cows to be sacrificed, which was carried out by a slaughterhouse that specializes in doing the sacrifices. The cows are then fed to the people, but it was made clear that the meal was not to feed the spirits.

Vining, Austin Kaufmann, associate pastor and longtime friend of the Lo family, DeNeui and Hmong pastors would each speak several times during the funeral. Vining says she learned never to go by a schedule because it constantly changed. “I just learned to forget the bulletins.”

The pastor also noted the importance of what she calls “the ministry of presence” for Hmong. “You just sit there. You are there.”

A key theological question the pastors and Christian members of the family had to address was whether or not to have a “blessing table” on the final night of the funeral. A table is placed in the center of the ritual activity.

In the traditional ritual, the shaman – religious leader – leads this pivotal time in the funeral. During the ceremony, everyone is given an opportunity to speak about the deceased individual, including grudges held and negative characteristics of the deceased. Speaking allows the attendees to have their accounts – financial, emotional, spiritual – cleared up so that the deceased won’t return to haunt them. The shaman speaks on behalf of the dead. “This can take hours,” DeNeui says.

When the speaking is over, the shaman turns the table upside down and fills small glasses with an alcoholic beverage. The people then come forward to drink, to receive a blessing and to have their accounts settled. “The people come for that moment more than anything else because they never want to be troubled by the dead,” DeNeui says.

Before Nhia Her died, “he kept saying ‘I have no grudges against anyone,'” says DeNeui “I think he was trying to say, when I die, I’m not going to be bothering anyone. I’m going to be with Jesus and all will be fine.”

After much discussion between the pastors and Nhia Her’s children, it was decided that a table blessing be held. People had traveled from around the world so they could clear accounts. The ritual was important to them.

The decision was made to keep the table, but alter the way it was used. “We felt there was too much symbolism of what Jesus did at the table,” says DeNeui. “We didn’t turn it over. We used it as a symbol of Christ with us.” Hmong attendees learned that Christ was with them in the form of the church.

“The blessing may not have been what most had expected or wanted but this was not your typical Hmong funeral,” Vining says. “This was a Christian funeral for a beloved Hmong man and we were doing our best to honor his wishes and to honor the God he served.”

“As a result, I felt we were able to reflect the kingdom of God in some small way that weekend as cultures came together,” Vining adds. “I was told that people were wondering who all the Anglos were because they had never seen it at a Hmong funeral before. It was truly a beautiful site.”

Afterward, one of the sons told Vining, “Pastor Anne, tonight our family is so honored by our church. First Covenant gave us freedom 30 years ago. Tonight our church has given us spiritual freedom.”

Copyright © 2011 The Evangelical Covenant Church.

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