Words like "peace" and "mercy" are vital to talking about Christianity. They're just two of many English words difficult to translate smoothly as an evolving Episcopal congregation tries to create a Hmong version of the denomination's Book of Common Prayer.
"Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. You can see it is important," said Cher Lor, a member of the congregation at Holy Apostles, an Episcopal church in St. Paul that is the only Hmong-majority congregation across the entire denomination. "But the word mercy itself, we don't have in Hmong. So we are using 'hulb,' which is a concept something like love. We believe that is the closest."
The Book of Common Prayer is the foundational text of the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its roots trace to the Church of England's split from Roman Catholicism in the 16th century, and ever since it has dictated morning and evening prayers, the rites of Holy Communion, baptism, marriage and funeral services, and much more. It typically runs to about 1,000 pages.
"Far more than a service manual, it's an embodiment of our life and our faith," said the Rev. William Bulson, the former pastor at Holy Apostles who continues to lead the translation effort.
For Hmong Episcopalians to enter fully into the church's fold, it's important that they have a Book of Common Prayer to call their own. It's been a long and painstaking process, but necessary for a mainline denomination struggling for relevance to new generations of U.S. immigrants.
“Far more than a service manual, it's an embodiment of our life and our faith.”Rev. William Bulson
The unique status of Holy Apostles, a modest wood-and-concrete parish on the working-class east side of Minnesota's capital city, has earned special attention in the wider Episcopal Church. James Jelinek, the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, is retiring in February, and he recently chose Holy Apostles as the site of his last Sunday parish visit as bishop. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, has also visited.
"Just in practical terms, if the Episcopal Church doesn't adapt, it's going to die, and it should die," Jelinek said.
The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group who come mainly from Laos. Tens of thousands of Hmong people fled in the late 1970s after a Communist takeover of Laos, with the largest groups settling in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. In St. Paul, Hmong immigrants have established their own institutions and businesses and won political office.
The Hmong religious tradition has roots in animism, a belief in spirits and connections between all living things. But various Christian denominations have made inroads in converting the Hmong in recent decades, with particular success by the Christian Missionary Alliance, an Evangelical Protestant denomination, and by Roman Catholicism.
St. Paul has deep Catholic roots, and many of its new Hmong residents found a home in that church. But in 2004, not long after the death of a priest popular with local Hmong Catholics, a group of Hmong parishioners at St. Vincent De Paul went looking elsewhere after disputes with another Hmong faction.
"We found that the Episcopal denomination is the closest to Catholic," said Toua Vang, a member of Holy Apostles and the translation team. Vang plans to enroll at Virginia Theological Seminary this fall, a step that could lead to becoming the first Hmong Episcopal pastor.
The group found its way to Holy Apostles, which was struggling with declining membership. "We were at about 60 people on a Sunday, and I remember in late 2004 the bishop told me, 'OK, we've given it a good run, but you have until the end of 2005 to turn it around or we're shutting you down,"' Bulson said.
Flash forward to 2010. The new pastor, the Rev. Letha Wilson-Barnard, said Holy Apostles typically draws 130 to 160 people between its two Sunday services - one in English, the other in Hmong.
A recent Sunday service showed a thriving congregation with a sharp contrast: The few white parishioners were mostly late middle-aged or older, but the Hmong parishioners were all ages. Families with small children, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged and elderly all filled the pews.
Bulson's first move was to begin a translation of the Sunday liturgy. In 2008 he secured a $30,000 grant from the United Thank Offering for the bigger translation project (he and several translators earn a small salary). He left Holy Apostles last summer, after struggling to keep up with what he said was a crushing workload, and now serves an Episcopal Church in a suburb west of Minneapolis.
After a several-month break to adjust to his new job, Bulson recently reconvened the translation sessions. Often it's just him and Cher Lor sitting at Bulson's dining room table with books and a laptop, puzzling over words and phrases.
Bulson called the Hmong language "tough, tough, tough." It wasn't even written until about 50 years ago, when Western missionaries in Laos set out to create one. Bulson said it's particularly difficult to find words for abstract concepts, and that it often takes three or four Hmong words to encompass one English word.
One recent day, Bulson and Cher Lo were sweating over the Book of Common Prayer's Baptism rites. And so "Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit" became "Peb cav txog Tswv Ntuj: Leej Tub thiab Leej Ntuj Plig Ntshiab."
The team hopes to finish in a few months. Though most of Holy Apostles' Hmong parishioners speak English, Wilson-Barnard said the older ones don't. But the project, she said, still feels necessary.
"This is part of passing the language and the culture on to the next generation, to expose them to that," Wilson-Barnard said. "Some in the 20 to 30 age group, who were born here, the way they're learning Hmong is through church. It's transmitting the language and the culture."
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