This article is fifth in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of Southeast Asian refugees in the United States. Material for this article about the Lahu from Laos came from the writings of Rev. Jerry Orsino, OMI, a missionary to Indochinese people for over thirty years.
The Lahu are a people who came originally from southwestern China and Tibet, and migrated to Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, and Laos, where they settled in the highlands. They are a people who are permeated with a desire for blessings--blessings of good health, and good crops. They like to refer to themselves as "children of blessings."
The Lahu in Laos, still retain some animistic beliefs in numerous spirits--good and bad--nature spirits and house spirits. Nevertheless, they profess belief in God, the supreme being. When the Italian Oblate missionaries first encountered the Lahu people in Laos, and asked the people what their religion was, the Lahu told the priests that they believed in the one, true God. In fact, they led the priests to a small bamboo chapel dedicated to the one, true God. It was their custom to enter the chapel only once a year. No one knows whether they received their belief in one God from Christian missionaries many centuries ago in Tibet or China, or were inspired about this truth by God's grace. The people said that their ancestors told them about God. When the missionaries told the people about the Son of God, they were anxious to know about this "good news." The people often moved a whole village, even from the highest part of a mountain, in order to live close to the missionary.
The missionaries introduced many new ideas to the people. They directed the building of a soccer field, which was lighted for night games powered by a generator which they brought in. They taught them how to make sausages and bread, and helped them build an infirmary, and school/chapel.
After the Communist Pathet Lao takeover of Laos in 1975, the Lahu people were among the thousands of refugees who fled to Thailand where they lived in the refugee camps for years.
Here, they quickly formed men's and women's soccer teams, which they had learned from the Italian Fathers--good soccer players themselves.
Right before the Communists took over Laos, the Lahu asked the priests to fill up large Ovaltine cans with consecrated hosts. When the Fathers were expelled, the families passed these cans from house to house so the families could pray privately in secret and receive a small particle of the host. It was after they had consumed the last host, that the Lahu fled to the camps in Thailand.
During more than ten years in the camps without a resident priest, the Lahu chose a young man to be their catechist. They always chose the one whom they considered to be the holiest person. The catechist not only conducted a Sunday service with a reading from Scripture and a homily, but also conducted religious education classes for children and nightly classes for adults. He also taught Lao and Lahu languages and songs so the people would not lose their cultural heritage. The catechist in the camps was, of course, unsalaried but totally dedicated. Each year, many converted to Catholicism because of the good example of the Lahu Catholics and their catechist.
Eventually, some of the Lahu were forcibly repatriated to Laos and suffered great hardships there, though they kept their faith alive. Others remained in Thailand, and many of these refugee families finally arrived in the United States where they now live mainly in California, Minnesota, and North Carolina. In this country, it is impressive to see how quickly the Lahu register in the local Catholic Church, and enroll their children in CCD classes. They are faithful in attending Sunday Mass even though the adult Lahu do not always comprehend English. The pastors of the parishes they attend attest to the deep faith and good example of the Lahu. Parish staff members often remark that although most Lahu are quite poor, they are generous in the weekly collection.
It could be said that the Lahu, in bringing their deep faith to this country, have a great deal to teach us about living out our lives according to the teachings of the Son of God.
As with other Southeast Asian groups, the Lahu have their own cultural traditions. Among the Lahu groups, young people are allowed to choose their own spouse. The courting period occurs during the New Year festival when a go-between for the man approaches the girl to ask permission for his friend to marry her. During a betrothal ceremony, the elders pray for blessings on the couple, and tie their wrists with string. Although they may now sleep together, their marriage is not complete until the wedding feast, which is held when the family has been able to stockpile enough food to feed the village.
The Lahu celebrate their annual New Year's festival at variable times during the year; during the festival, everyone wears new clothing. Lahu Catholics usually celebrate the New Year festival on Christmas Day during a worship service in the church to thank God for the blessings of the past year, and to pray for new blessings in the year to come.
For information about available religious education and spiritual books, contact Catechist Boon M. See, Lahu Catholic Community, St. Charles Borromeo Parish, 714 W. Union Street, Morgantown, North Carolina, 28655, phone: (704) 432-3108.