Laotians find faith, challenges in United States
Pregnant with onechild and carrying another on her back, Crystal Nachampassack swam across the Mekong River,fleeing her home country, Laos,for neighboring Thailand.
She was one ofthousands of Laotians who left the South Asian country in the years followingthe communist takeover of 1975 — the same year Saigon fell to the forces of HoChi Minh in nearby Vietnam.
Living in a refugeecamp in Thailand,Nachampassack encountered a group of Seventh-day Adventists who sparked herinterest in Christianity. Granted asylum in the United States, she moved to Euless,Texas, in 1983 — not far from a church of Christ.
“I saw the cross andwalked in,” she said.
Laos marked the 30th anniversary of its communist revolutionDec. 2, opening a museum filled with Chinese tanks and Russian artillery.
Days earlierNachampassack worshipped with the 90-member Laotian and Thai congregation atthe South MacArthur church. She held the collection plate patiently as her babygranddaughter, seated in her lap, carefully dropped in her money.
Praising God in herbirth language is important, Nachampassack said. The service in Laotian andThai (similar languages) is a vital outreach to fellow immigrants and helpsfuture generations of Laotians maintain their culture, she said.
But many in the nextgeneration aren’t fluent in the language and don’t fully understand a Laotiansermon, said several church leaders who minister to this increasingly diversegroup.
Today many Laotians,who prize unity, face a Sunday morning language barrier within their ownfamilies.
A DEEP SENSE OFFAMILY
About 180,000 peoplemarked “Laotian” as their ethnic origin on the U.S. Census in 2000. Many cameto the United Statesseeking freedom and found Christ.
Tom Porter wasvolunteering with a bus ministry for the West-Ark church, Fort Smith, Ark.,in the early 1980s when hundreds of Laotians moved to the area. He startedbringing Laotian children to church. Their parents followed. Today the Laotiangroup has about 40 adult members, said West-Ark member Jerry Canfield.
The Woodward Parkchurch, Fresno, Calif.,has separate services for Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong, an ethnic minority inLaos.About 120 Laotians worship together in a room that shares a wall with Woodward Park’s main auditorium.
“I can hear themsinging in their own language” through the wall when the English-speakingservice pauses for communion, said Joe Boe, youth and family minister. TheLaotians have “a deep sense of family and unity, and with that comes a greatdeal of respect.”
In Texas,at least 1,000 Laotian families live in the Fort Worthsuburb of Saginaw.Many chose to stay there even if they work in Plano, an hour’s drive away, said SouthMacArthur member Vinson Keojampa.
Larry Henderson, aformer missionary to Bangkok, Thailand, spends his Sundays preaching at SouthMacArthur in the morning and driving to Saginawto preach an afternoon sermon at a new congregation of South Asian churchmembers.
LAOTIAN, AMERICAN ORBOTH?
One Laotian immigrantsaid he knew Americans would find his name long and hard to pronounce, so hedecided to change it to something short and memorable — James Bond.
Though removed fromhis homeland by thousands of miles, Bond said that his thoughts never stray farfrom the small churches meeting secretly in Laos.
“Yes I would go back,no question,” said Bond, who came to the United States in 1979 and attendsSouth MacArthur.
Keojampa, who left Laos at age 6,isn’t as sure. Unlike their parents, younger Christians “don’t look at Laos and say,‘That’s my country,’” he said.
Keojampa’s father,James, is the Laotian/Thai minister for South MacArthur. Vinson Keojampa saidhe enjoys worshipping with other Laotian speakers, but he feels equally at homein an English-language service.
The church tried tomerge most of the Laotian group with the English service a few years ago toaccommodate younger members who speak more English than Laotian. The attemptwas unsuccessful, said body life minister Tim Lewis. Now the church isencouraging the group to become self-supporting.
“Our goal is for thatchurch to be an indigenous church,” Lewis said, but he acknowledged that thetask has proved difficult — and frustrating at times.
The Woodward Parkchurch has included space for its three Asian-language services its expansionplans, Boe said. But, “we know that ultimately there will not be a separateHmong, Laotian and Cambodian group. Eventually (they will) blend into thecongregation.”
In Fort Smith the Lao Church of Christ used tomeet in its own building, but now worships in the West-Ark facility, Canfieldsaid. Thomas Kweekul is the group’s minister. West-Ark provides some funds, butthe small church largely supports itself. Laotian men teach adult classes intheir native language, and children attend English Bible classes.
“These moves andchanges are difficult,” Canfield said. “Some want to integrate and others wishto remain separate. The whole group tries to go slowly and satisfy as manyconcerns as possible.”
REACHING HOMELANDS,OLD AND NEW
Unable to professChrist in the land of his birth, Bond hopes to “spread his name to the Laotianpeople” living in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Nachampassack, whoworks for a financial services company, spends her free time helping otherLaotians. Many lack language and job skills. Some get in trouble with the law.“I want to take my people to the next level,” she said.
Some have traveledback to Laosin recent years. Missionaries working in nearby countries report that more than200 church members meet — some in secret — in the communist nation.
Increasingly Laos is open toforeign investment and tourism, but the government still prohibits evangelism.Nonetheless, church workers said they are hopeful that Laos willbecome more tolerant of Christians.
Nachampassack hopesthat she can one day help people in her home country the same way that shehelps those around her now. But she doubts Laos ever will be her home again.
“Myhome is here,” she said. “I rebuilt my life here.”