Rev. E. Allen Sorum, Director of the Pastoral Studies Institute, accompanied Rev. Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia Ministry Coordinator, to Hanoi, Vietnam, to conduct a training for the Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC) in June 2019. Sorum taught the Book of Isaiah and Pastoral Counseling and Family Ministry for Missionaries. Lor taught dogmatics. Half-way through this training session, Sorum and Lor had this conversation:
Sorum: What are the special challenges that you face as you administer the WELS training program for the Hmong pastors in Vietnam?
Lor: Our biggest challenge here is probably that the translation of the Bible that most of our Hmong pastors have is not a faithful translation. This translation was done by the Hmong Christian and Missionary Alliance members and by the Hmong Baptists. They translated the Bible from their own doctrinal perspective. This means that their translation always talks about how a person must approach God with good works. A person must help God to save them. For example, the Bible most Hmong people have translates “justification” to mean something like, “You have to work hard.” The translation gives the idea that justification happens in a series of steps. Another problem with this translation is that it presents Hmong traditions as God’s Word. For example, the tradition of Hmong Christians is that it is wrong to drink alcohol. So the Hmong Bible translates the word “wine” with “juice.” The translation that most Hmong Christians have does not tell people the true teaching of the gospel.
Sorum: Has this translation made it difficult for our students in this training session to understand the Book of Isaiah?
Lor: The Hmong translation of Isaiah has made it hard to teach Isaiah. I must often correct our Bible’s translation of Isaiah before I can translate what you have said about the words of Isaiah. The Hmong translation makes it almost impossible for our people to see how Isaiah is talking about Jesus. For example, in Isaiah 4:2, the prophet describes Jesus as the Branch of the Lord that is beautiful. The Hmong translation doesn’t talk about a branch but about trees. How can a Hmong person see Jesus in a passage that says, “In that day trees of the Lord will be beautiful?”
Another example is in Isaiah 49:3. Isaiah says, “You (singular) Israel (Jesus) are my servant.” The Hmong translation says, “You (plural) Israelites are my servants.” This translation does not show Christ. This translation damages the beauty of these Servant songs throughout Isaiah.
Sorum: I understand why your students have had to work extra hard to get the right meaning and God’s encouragement from their Hmong translation of the Bible. You consistently take the time required to explain to the students what Isaiah is actually saying. God will bless this so these students can go back home to teach Isaiah and Christianity properly. What other benefits do you see these students in our training session receiving?
Lor: Our training session on Isaiah has helped the students in many ways. I think especially important is that our instruction has helped our students learn how to interpret the Bible. We are talking about the law and the gospel in Isaiah. This approach to studying Isaiah is totally new to them. The law and the gospel is so clear in Isaiah. They are enjoying it very much. Also, they did not understand how a prophecy by Isaiah can be partially fulfilled at one time in history and then completely fulfilled in a later time in history. For example, Isaiah is comforting the people of Israel by promising judgment upon their enemies. But the final fulfillment of the judging of the Christians’ enemies will happen on the Last Day.
Another way that our teaching is helping these men is that they are learning about how the Old Testament teaches God’s plan of salvation. These men read their Bibles. They know the Bible stories. But no one explained to them that all of the stories in the Old Testament show how God chose the Jewish people and rescued a remnant of the Jewish people so God could give Jesus to the world as a Savior.
I think also that the students have enjoyed learning about how Isaiah organized his message. There is an outline to Isaiah. It is like a plot. There are sections that talk about different things. We have learned about the Four Servant Songs. We have talked about the different servants of the Lord and especially the great Servant, Jesus. This is new for these men and they are enjoying it very much. They are very eager to take what they have received from the WELS training back to their people.
Sorum: Your fellow Hmong pastors have significant challenges to their ministry. They need a faithful Bible translation and faithful teaching materials. I know you are working hard to provide them materials. You have translated many good materials into the Hmong language including Luther’s Small Catechism. But in spite of the challenges these men face, they are doing wonderful mission work. In the few years that you have been bringing Lutheran training to the Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC), it has grown tremendously. One of the leaders of the HFC told me that they now have 700 pastors and 120,000 members. That is incredible growth in a few years.
Lor: Since we have started this training for my Hmong brothers, their church has grown very fast. This church is growing through the pure teaching of the law and the gospel. Through our training sessions, these pastors now have the ability to apply law and gospel in their sermons and in their Bible teaching. This is the reason why their church has been growing really fast in the last couple years.
Gospel centered training has also opened their eyes to see that it is not the law that motivates people. It is not the law that is the goal of their ministry. Now the people in the congregations understand their role as Christians. They participate more in their congregations. They are eager to share their faith. This is why their churches have been growing so fast in the last several years.
I would ask my WELS fellow members to continue to pray for the HFC. This is a communist country. We do not know when the door will be closed. We now have an open door to preach the gospel. With our prayers and God’s help, these pastors will be able to train their own future leaders for the church even if WELS will not be allowed to assist us. Based on the current situation, I don’t see any problems in the near future. I am very grateful to my WELS brothers and sisters for supporting this ministry.
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