This article is the second in a series about Southeast Asian refugees who have come to the United States recently and how the Church might better serve their pastoral needs. Much of the material here is taken from the writings of Rev. Louis S. Leduc, a priest of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, who spent thirty years as a missionary in Laos and Thailand before coming to minister with Laotian refugees in the United States in 1984. Father Leduc has been director of the Laotian Pastoral Center in Fort Worth, Texas; the center provides leadership training, program coordination, and resource development to Laotian Catholics. Note: Father Leduc died on February 10, after a long illness. May he rest in peace.
Laos is a small, landlocked country in Southeast Asia, between Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and China to the north. For hundreds of years, Laos was open to many ethnic communities migrating from China, Burma (Myanmar), Tibet, and Vietnam. Today, the Lao population is relatively small, with fewer than four million inhabitants composed of many different ethnic groups. The two major groups are the Lowland Lao, which is the largest single group, and the Highland Lao. The largest Highland group is the Hmong community; another Highland group is the Kmhmu.
In December 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao overran Laos, forcing more than 50,000 to flee in fear to Thailand. Unlike the massive U.S. evacuation of Vietnamese, the United States resettled only about 3,500 Lao refugees who were closely tied to the United States. This was followed by the resettlement of 110,000 Lao refugees from camps in Thailand between 1979 and 1981.
Theravada Buddhism, the religion of the state, is adhered to by 90 percent of the population. Animism is still present among various tribes. Christians represent only about one percent of the population. It is important to honor the Laotian people's belief in the Khouan, or interior reality of human beings. To maintain the balance of good relationships with oneself and with one's neighbors as well as with all things, the Baci or SouKouan is celebrated. The Baci ceremony includes a plate of offering, and the tying of cotton string around the wrist of the person for whom the ceremony is being held by the well-wishers. The strings represent a blessing. Participation in this ritual enables the Westerner to discern some elements of the Laotian spiritual universe and to open communication with them.
For the Laotian there is the seen and the unseen; the second category is more important and vital. It is necessary to live in harmony with the Khouan, so everything will go well. The Laotians live in a spiritual universe with many ghosts and phantoms, both good and bad spirits. In a new society [like the United States] with its own demands, the Lao lose their point of reference. The painful events they have been through have destroyed their beliefs. They blame their divinities and guardian spirits. The elders lose their influence on the younger generation and become isolated.
The relationship of Laotian refugees to the Church in the United States varies widely. Generally, clergy are not sufficiently aware of the problems facing Asiatic refugees. Contact between clergy and newcomers is very difficult because the Lao people are timid and shy. There is a language barrier on both sides so neither the Lao nor the American clergy know how to reach each other. Lao are lost when it comes to the regulations of the Church in the United States. Not understanding English, they find attending Sunday Mass to be boring. Although they do have an English-Lao prayer book so they can pray in their own language, they feel bad that they cannot participate with the others in the English-speaking congregation. A commentary on the Sunday Gospels to help Lao understand the Word of the Lord, titled Salt of the Earth, Light of the World, is published by the Laotian Pastoral Center of Fort Worth, Texas.
In certain parishes, Lao are more or less integrated into the Church. In these instances, there are religious sisters or lay persons to sponsor them and take care of them. These Lao do not seem to have major problems about attending Church and can contact the priest through their sponsors. In several places, even without the presence of a Laotian-speaking priest, the Lao Catholics are really "at home" in the local Church. The can find help, understanding, and respect as parishioners. These fortunate Lao are happy and comfortable in the Church. Periodic visits by Laotian-speaking pastoral ministry teams are great events which strengthen them in their faith life.
All things considered, however, the majority of Laotian refugees remains far from being fully integrated into the local Church. With some exceptions, they remain strangers in the Church. It is important to remember that Lao people come from mission territories where they were members of a subsidized Church and they in turn were assisted by the Church. The missionaries helped them face all kinds of problems: diseases, poverty, education of their children. Because of this prior experience, they are not used to being expected to support the Church by their contributions.
Lao refugees are ready to agree with everything they are told about liturgy and morality without having any theology. Local Church communities are more ready to integrate them than to welcome and receive them. We have to take a long walk with them, starting with their present situations, their questions, their sufferings, their anxieties, and their culture. Thus, for example, the Church rites and sacraments must be thoroughly explained, since with the old Lao religion, rites are ways of communicating with spirits. Also, the Lao truly appreciate proverbs and maxims which are expressions of wisdom, so it is good for them to memorize phrases from the Gospel and psalms and especially the words of our Lord.
Above all, it is important to explain the relationship between faith and life. They cannot become Catholics alone, apart from a caring, receptive community. We need to help the Lao find their place among us. We have to receive them with a new kind of thinking and wisdom as brothers and sisters in Christ and members of this Church, recognizing their differences from us as being complementary. We need to help them retain their Laotian identity as members of the Catholic Church. When Lao refugees feel that they are accepted as brothers or sisters, they are finally at home, free from fear, in the Church. In this approach lies the hope of fully integrating
the Lao into the heart of the Church in the United States.
Source: "Laotian Catholic Refugees in the United States," by Rev. Louis Leduc, published in Migration World, Vol. XXI, No. 1. Excerpts printed with permission of Migration World.
- Lao New Year (Pi Mai):
The Lao New Year or Pi Mai is the most widespread and popular occasion celebrated by the Lao. It usually occurs between April 13 and 15. Pi Mai stems from an ancient Lao legend in which the daughters of a god offer him thanks for abundant rainfall and the fertility of the earth.
The Lao New Year is a time of rejuvenation and rejoicing. The Lao people give thanks and ask forgiveness for past wrongs. The people pray for the well-being of themselves and their loved ones. They then pour water over one another and wish each other a happy New Year. The New Year is also a time for young people to honor their elders with a "Baci" or "well wishing" ceremony, in which the young ones ask for forgiveness of past wrongs they may have committed. The elders then forgive them and wish them a happy New Year.
- Sou Khouan:
While the New Year's Baci ceremony is a show of respect to the elders, another form of this ceremony is known as "Sou Khouan" and is used to treat depressed persons. The Lao people believe that in each person there are thirty-two spirits present which give health, happiness, and prosperity. A lack of any of these spirits is believed to cause depression, illness, and disease. The purpose of the Sou Khouan is to promote recovery by calling back the spirits that have left a person's body. Misfortune, fear of the unknown, personal defamation and loss of identity, violation of an ancestral tradition, and insulting of one's divinity are all believed to be causes for a person's loss of spirits.
Source: A Catholic Response to the Asian Presence, National Catholic Educational Association, 1990.
NOTE: A list of available scriptural, catechetical, and liturgical publications in the Laotian language can be obtained from the Laotian Pastoral Center, 3508 Maurice Avenue, Fort Worth, TX 76111.