From Rags to Royalty: The Voice of One Hmong Clergywoman

Mao Vang Her, Wisconsin Annual Conference

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The Gospel[1] about Jesus Christ is a transforming message! If I did not believe that I would not have pursued ministry as a clergywoman, let alone as a leader in the Christian community. To be a clergywoman is to lead, and to lead is to bring change that will result in transforming the people I serve. The thought of being an agent of change can be a scary one, especially for a Hmong woman. But I am convinced that I have a message that can transform the lives of others. So to be a clergywoman, I have to overcome my fears and inadequacies not only as a woman but also as a Hmong woman.

As a Hmong woman and as clergy, I like to think that I have a unique voice in the Gospel message. A friend told me that I am not a typical Asian woman. I am not exactly sure what she meant by that. But I definitely do not consider myself to be just another Asian woman. I am a Hmong woman, and one who is uniquely made by God. Most people have never heard of the Hmong. For those who do not know, Hmong is probably one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in Asia. We do not have a country of our own; we live on other peoples’ land. Hmong is also one of the most marginalized ethnic groups in the world, and Hmong is found throughout the world.

Hmong live in a community where important decisions are made mostly by men. It is a male-dominated society where women are second-class citizens, if they are considered to be citizens at all. Hmong women are treated as pieces of property and valued just a little bit more than farm animals. So a Hmong woman is marginalized in the community at large, in her own community, in her own clan, and in her own family. I am aware that this is not unique. However, I do believe that my story and experiences are unique. And it is not because I am a first-generation Hmong woman living in the United States, but because I am a unique child of God.

Understanding my position in Christ and my uniqueness as a child of God has helped me to embrace my identity as a Hmong woman. It has helped me to overcome my inadequacies and my fears. At the same time, it has prepared me to embrace the changes that had to occur in order for me to become the person that God has created me to be. You have to understand that I live in a world that is filled with dos and don’ts; cans and cannots, just because I was born a woman. Also in my world, in order to be somebody, I have to be submissive and obedient to my elders, my parents, and my husband. As a Hmong woman, I have to live in the shadow of others because without them I have no identity.

Even as a pastor, I have been reminded that I am expected to live a certain way or make certain decisions because I am the first Hmong woman pastor in The United Methodist Church. Can you imagine the weight that is placed on my shoulders? It is not that I do not want to set good examples or that I do not want to help others, but it has to be done on my own terms and in the way I want to approach it. I would like to have the freedom to just be myself, and to be able to make my own decisions without someone meddling. This is the reason I find it hard to believe that I actually can have a voice of my own or that anyone would be interested in listening to what I have to say. When you grow up thinking that you have no identity, that your ideas are not important, and you are expected to live a certain way just because it is the way life is, it is impossible to believe that you can actually be an agent of God’s transforming message, that you can actually lead a congregation. So in order for me to be the leader and pastor that God has called me to be, I have to embrace the changes that have to take place inside of me. And that begins by letting go of all my expectations—all that are expected of me—and claim the grace and freedom that is found in Jesus Christ.

Understanding my position in Christ as a child of God has also helped me to realize that the world is changing, slowly, but it is changing. Evidence of this is the fact that I have become the first Hmong clergywoman in The United Methodist Church. Changes are happening all around us, and we can choose to ignore them, or we can choose to embrace them with a sober mind and judgment. For those who choose to ignore change, it will force them to close down, and they will slowly turn bitter from within.[2] As for those who embrace change, they will find freedom and new meaning in their lives, and they will gain new insights. All of these come as the result of a renewed mind and spirit; and a renewed mind and spirit is what I have.

In Romans 12:2 (NRSV), the apostle Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” A renewed mind and spirit is where transformation begins, where we can begin to move beyond the walls of our gated communities. This wall separated me from the rest of the world; it is thought to be a wall of protection, but at the same time I felt abandoned and lonely.

In the transformation process, I have had to reflect on who I am as a person and on my purpose in life. I asked myself, “What has God put me on earth to do?” As I began to reflect on this question, God opened my eyes to see the reality of my community and the conditions of my world; there was a war within me, and I had no peace! I began to understand who God has made me to be and the transforming message that I am to proclaim.

When it finally becomes clear that we have a message to deliver, we usually find ourselves in tensions, or in the “tragic gap,” as Parker J. Palmer terms it. I love that idea. Parker said, “By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible—not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.”[3] We usually find ourselves in these situations when our eyes are opened to see the reality of our lives, the condition of ourselves and our communities. We are awakened for the first time to see a world filled with war and violence; a country that cannot agree on how to take care of its poor; institutions and churches that are most interested in fame, power, and money; a community that has failed us because it cannot and will not uphold mercy and justice. We are also awakened to a family who tells us that we will never amount to anything. We now realize how hard it will be to change the world.

But at the same time we are awakened to a vision that God has placed in our hearts; a vision for a community that could be better than the one that we are living, and a vision that all human beings will be treated equally, with dignity and respect. We also see a vision that all people will come to know and experience Salvation, the promise of a transformation that comes only through accepting the gift of grace that is found in Jesus Christ our Lord. When we are awakened to God’s vision, we have no choice but to say “Yes Lord, please let transformation begin in me.”

Whenever there is doubt in my mind about my role as a pastor, I am reminded of Esther 4:14 (NRSV), “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (emphasis added). Royal dignity is what I have been given! What a strong message for someone who lives in the tragic gap. And it is a message that will have to start the transformation process in me before I can proclaim it to the people I serve. Therefore, may God grant me strength and courage as I continue to serve.

 

 


[1] The word Gospel, in reference to the Good News of Jesus Christ, is capitalized throughout this article in reflection of the author’s theological and cultural traditions.

[2] Richard Rohr and John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2001), 69.

[3] Alicia Von Stamwtiz, “If Only We Would Listen,” interview with Palmer J. Parker, The Sun, November 2012, http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/443/if_only_we_would_listen. See also http://www.couragerenewal.org/the-tragic-gap/.

 

 

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