Editor's note: The following is the first in a series of articles designed to shed some light on ministry with Southeast Asian groups now living in the United States. To begin this series, Father Jerry Orsino, OMI, a missionary to Indochinese people for over thirty years, offers some introductory information and reflections. Following articles will deal with some of the Southeast Asian peoples--their background, and how the Church in the United States might better minister with their communities.
The Indochinese countries (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) as well as Thailand and southern China were separated from one another by colonists. The borders were often set according to the terrain, i.e., rivers and mountains. But rivers are usually routes of travel, and therefore are "connectors" rather than borders. As a result, these artificial borders do not always reflect the ethnic distinctions of the inhabitants. Westerners sometimes tend to put all Southeast Asians in one category. However, the countries and their people differ as much as the countries and people in Europe differ from one another.
In one sense, the location of the Indochinese people can be described by the image of a layer cake. For example, at the top level of the mountains, are the Lahu people, then a bit lower, the Hmong and the Mien, and then the Khmhu. In the lowlands are the river people, the Lao, Thai, and Khmer (Cambodians), and the Vietnamese.
The hilltribes, unlike the lowland people, have a difficult time surviving and making a living on the mountainside. They live high in the mountains, where the cool climate, and the necessity of hard labor have created a people who are quick-moving and ready to make their own future. They are well organized and ambitious. Like the lowland people, their hospitality is extraordinary. Even an enemy, once inside the house, is treated as a guest. Generosity is taught from day to day: every child receives a guest with great kindness. They expect westerners to act the same way. Oral tradition is most important with the Lahu, Hmong, and Mien. Their songs reflect this and are extremely beautiful in a religious context.
The Khmhu people, although they live in the highlands, are very much a part of the Lao culture. They often had to flee to the mountains because of persecution. Because of the constant threat to their lives, they are a very gentle, even subdued people. Yet in America, given the chance to be leaders, especially in the Church, they blossom forth in an outstanding way.
In general and in broad strokes, we can say the hilltribe people (Lahu, Hmong, Mien, and Khmhu) are animists. In every community, there are shamans to offer sacrifices to keep the spirits happy. If spirits leave the body, that causes sickness and death; spirits in the forests and rivers are very real.
On the other hand, we can say that the lowland or river people--Lao, Thai, and Khmer--are culturally Theravadan Buddhists, and religiously animists., i.e., they are believers in spirits who must be appeased. This special blend of religions allows them to "make merit" for the next life by acts of kindness in this life. They accept life's problems with a fatalism in this life but great hope for the next. The Lao, Thai, and Khmer are culturally similar to one another, but very dissimilar to the Vietnamese, and to the hilltribe people such as the Lahu, Hmong, Mien and Khmhu. To illustrate this difference, the dances of these two groups of people are very different. Only the Lao, Thai, and Khmer--of all the Asian peoples--allow a man and woman to dance together. Other countries have folk dances with large groups of people--usually female--doing harvest or fishing dances, but never are males and females together.
The lowland area is usually humid and results in a slower lifestyle. It is helpful to understand some of the people's customs. For the Lowland people (Lao, Thai, Khmer), it is important to remove one's shoes before entering their homes, never to point one's feet at them at any time when seated, not to touch someone's head, especially children's. It is also important to smile, not to gesticulate too much, and to avoid all forms of confrontation. To get angry is the worst sin.
The oral tradition of religious stories has great appeal. The mystery expressed in the Mass attracts them. They prefer a more silent style of praying. Their hymns express the beauty of their culture, which values praising God in community rather than as individuals.
In all the Southeast Asian cultures, as with most people, once the people realize God loves them, they respond to that love. They quickly want to reciprocate God's love, and they learn the best way to do this is to belong to the Church and partake of the sacraments. The sacraments are very natural to their lifestyle in many ways, and the Church really complements their customs and natural virtues. They have often been heard to say that their former religions kept them in fear--fear of the spirits, fear induced by their having no control over the present situation, and no hope to change a bad situation. But now, they understand that Christ has set humankind free and that religion is about love not fear.
All these peoples are gifted with many talents. They have much to offer the Catholic Church in America. Their culture and customs can enrich us. As with most people, it is necessary to form a strong relationship with them before true friendship develops, which will lead to faith-sharing experiences. It is easy to find Christ in them from the beginning, and, hopefully, once they see Christ in us, they will sincerely commit themselves to him.