Twenty-five years ago, a little Hmong boy named Xiong Lee got on a bus every Sunday to go to church. The bus took him to First German, Manitowoc, Wis., where he sat with his surrogate church parents and other Hmong children. There he learned about Jesus.
Now Xiong Lee serves as president of Trinity Hmong, a congregation that grew out of this 30-year mission of First German to reach an immigrant community in Manitowoc.
First German itself started out as an immigrant congregation in 1855 when a nearby minister began making trips on horseback to downtown Manitowoc to gather German Lutherans around the Word. The German influence continued in that congregation, with regular monthly German services through 1970. Mission work also was at the forefront with First German daughtering two congregations and helping support a third.
When First German’s vicar, Loren Steele, and its pastor, Arno Wolfgramm, began making inroads in the Hmong community in the early 1980s, the congregation recognized an opportunity to reach a culture with the peace and love of Jesus. They made friends with these immigrants who wanted to know about American culture, including Christianity.
In the early days of Hmong outreach, the congregation sponsored a mission bus that picked up Hmong children from all over the city for church. “Sponsors would sit with the children on Sundays,” says Ben Schaefer, current pastor at First German. “One lady had nine Hmong children in the pew with her and her husband. Kids were crawling underneath the pews.”
The ministry progressed with invitations to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and other church events. The parents began attending Bible information class to learn more about Jesus and the basic Bible stories. Soon First German began offering Hmong/English worship services, with Hmong men translating the sermon as it was being preached. “I was told that there would be Sundays where you would hear Hmong, German, and English all in the same hour in different services and Bible classes, all under one roof!” says Schaefer. “God’s Pentecost miracle was still happening in our little corner in Manitowoc.”
By the year 2000, First German had 200 Hmong members and wanted a Hmong pastor to serve them. Enter Nau Lee. A member since 1992, he was recognized as a leader among the Hmong. But he wasn’t sure about becoming a pastor. “Pastor Bitter asked me to become a pastor to reach the Hmong,” says Nau. “He asked me three times to become a Hmong pastor, and finally I said yes to him because I think that if I don’t do it, who will do it?”
Nau first became an evangelist and then continued studying through Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary to become a pastor. Supported by WELS Kingdom Workers, he served at First German while he was studying. He graduated in 2009 and was called to serve the congregation full time.
While First German had been planning to keep the two groups in one congregation, the vision started to change when Nau became the group’s pastor and the Hmong members began realizing the potential if they became more independent. “If we are not separate from First German congregation, some [Hmong] people will say you are only First German congregation. You are not strong enough to stand on your own, as Hmong people,” says Nau. “First German has helped the Hmong people crawl and grow in God’s Word. Now, we want to walk and run with the Lord’s help.”
In 2013, WELS Home Missions granted funding so First German’s Hmong members could start their own congregation. In June 2013 Trinity Hmong was born.
Currently serving 170 souls, Trinity Hmong continues to worship at First German. The congregations work closely together, with First German providing financial help as well as leadership mentoring. But Trinity Hmong has its own constitution, church council, choirs, and committees. It’s also supporting synod mission work with its offerings.
Of course, challenges remain, including how to reach people engrained in their ancient religion. “People are tempted to return to the old religion and serve their ancestors. If someone leaves the old religion, other Hmong people will say, ‘Don’t you respect your ancestors?’ ” says Nau. “We take time to help them understand the truth of God’s Word and how we trust in Jesus, the true God.”
Taking that time has brought amazing results. Just ask Xiong. “Many years ago the First German congregation decided to plant some seeds. Not knowing what the outcome will be they just keep watering those seeds with God’s Word and unconditional love. Those seeds grew to what it is today, Trinity Hmong. I’m am very happy to be one of those seeds. It just goes to show what can happen if we trust and put all our faith in God.”
Volume 101, Number 11
Issue: November 2014
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