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“The New Way”: How American Refugee Policies Changed Hmong Religious Life

Three people stand watching a ceremony. Soldiers are in uniform in the background.

Attendees at an Arlington National Cemetery ceremony honoring Hmong and Lao veterans, May 15, 2015.
Photo by Arlington National Cemetery, in the Public Domain.

This post originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of The American Historian.

Paja Thao’s arrival in the United States in 1984 marked the end of a long and painful journey. In 1975 the war in Laos forced him to flee his village, and for fifteen days he journeyed through the jungle to Thailand. There, he spent eight years at Nam Yao refugee camp. Finally, nearly a decade after his escape from Laos, Thao resettled in Chicago, where instead of living high in the mountains, he lived high on the eighth floor of an apartment building.

The United States was supposed to be a safe haven for victims of war and persecution, but for Hmong refugees such as Thao, resettlement in America also brought the possibility of new and unexpected suffering: spiritual—and possibly bodily—harm. Thao strived mightily to continue traditional Hmong religion, which combines elements of animism, shamanism, and ancestral worship. However, Thao was an ocean apart from the kin and ritual experts necessary for the proper practice of Hmong rituals. For Hmong people like Thao, who believed that failing to conduct rituals correctly could cause spirits to inflict spiritual and physical harm on humans, the spiritual situation in America was dire. In this chant, Thao expressed the grief he felt as he attempted to practice Hmong rituals in almost impossible circumstances, and as he witnessed his relatives abandon traditional Hmong ways for “the new way,” Christianity:

Now some of my clansmen come to America

None of them knows how to feed these spirits

They do not know these spirits

All my clansmen change to Christians

Now there is only my family

I, all alone, am not sure how to follow this way.[1]

The irony of Paja Thao’s story is that his new home is regularly celebrated for its vibrant religious life and its commitment to religious freedom. Both scholars and casual observers have long attributed the robust religiosity in the United States to the freedom with which Americans choose their faith. According to this exceptionalist narrative, the United States owes its high level of religious engagement to its competitive religious marketplace, where religious groups compete for adherents in a system free of government interference.

However, the experiences of Hmong refugees such as Thao tell a different story: one of religious constraint, rather than of religious freedom, and one that illuminates the power, rather than the absence, of the state. When they resettled in the United States, Hmong refugees experienced profound religious changes that were the direct consequence of government policies. First, American refugee policies disrupted the practice of traditional Hmong religion by splitting families and depriving refugees of the human and material resources vital to their traditional rituals. Second, in the American system of refugee resettlement, federal and local governments relied on religious agencies and churches to provide essential resettlement services. These public-private, church-state administrative arrangements initiated close and influential relationships between non-Christian Hmong refugees and Christian resettlement workers. Ultimately, the American refugee policies introduced a new religion to Hmong refugees at the same time that they rendered traditional Hmong religion unviable.

Hmong refugees experienced these pressures for religious change despite sincere efforts on the part of the government to make refugee assistance a religiously neutral enterprise. The people who planned and administered the resettlement program promised to honor commitments to religious freedom and pluralism. Despite these genuine good intentions, though, the state proved unable to fully enact its own benevolence, and in resettling Hmong refugees, it ended up unsettling Hmong religious life.

American Refugee Resettlement in an Era of Religious Pluralism

Between 1975 and 2000, the United States resettled approximately one million Southeast Asian refugees in an ambitious undertaking of unprecedented scale, cost, and complexity. Initially, government officials expected resettlement efforts to conclude within a year. However, the humanitarian crisis in Asia intensified, and the United States continued to admit more refugees out of a commitment to human rights and loyalty to anti-communist allies, such as the Hmong. Although Southeast Asian refugee resettlement found bipartisan support in Washington, the American public was reluctant, and sometimes even hostile. A 1975 Gallup poll found that only 36 percent of Americans agreed that the United States should resettle Southeast Asian refugees; 54 percent opposed resettlement.

Sensitive to this lack of public support, resettlement planners aimed to minimize the impact of refugee resettlement. First, they understood that much of the public opposition centered on the concern that refugees posed a financial burden to a country already beset by economic troubles. For this reason, the government’s highest priority was to help refugees achieve economic self-sufficiency quickly, with little use of public resources. Second, it aimed to facilitate cultural assimilation. Finally, to ensure that states share the responsibility of resettlement, the government planned to disperse refugees across the country. John McCarthy—representing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), one of the voluntary agencies that helped the government resettle refugees—explained the rationale for this dispersal policy during a 1975 Congressional hearing. “We are going to work our darnedest that these communities are scattered throughout the land—not to isolate these people, but in turn not to affect our economy, our socioeconomic development, the community life, or anything else,” he said. “These are a beautiful people. We hope to settle them in a beautiful way.”[2] In his view, the “beautiful way” to do resettlement was to make refugees as unnoticeable as possible so that the United States would be as unaffected as possible.

That it was McCarthy, a representative of a Catholic agency, who assured Congress that Southeast Asian refugee resettlement would be “beautiful” reveals another important aspect of American refugee care: that it is a public-private, church-state effort. Providing humanitarian relief and resettlement services for one million refugees traumatized by war was a task of unprecedented magnitude that was too expensive and difficult for the government to do alone. The U.S. government thus expanded capacity by joining forces with private voluntary agencies—especially religious agencies—that did most of the work of aiding refugees at the international, national, state, and local levels. Voluntary agencies had worked cooperatively with the government to resettle several groups of refugees since the Second World War, and when the Southeast Asian refugee crisis erupted, both the federal government and the voluntary agencies sprang to action, ready once again to organize a joint relief and resettlement effort. From the government’s perspective, working with these experienced, knowledgeable agencies was the most efficient and effective approach.

The voluntary agencies received a per capita grant from the federal government to provide refugees with initial reception and resettlement services during their first few weeks in the United States, and they also ran programs to facilitate refugees’ long-term integration. Of the voluntary agencies that held federal contracts to resettle Southeast Asian refugees, the most prominent were religious agencies, including the USCCB, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), and Church World Service (CWS). Christian agencies sponsored the lion’s share of Southeast Asian refugees—approximately three-quarters of the incoming Southeast Asian refugee population in 1981. Christian agencies also provided much of the person-to-person assistance to refugees, particularly through the system of congregational sponsorship. At the local level, voluntary agencies relied on church sponsors to provide refugees with housing, food, clothing, and furniture and to assist them in securing employment, schooling, medical care, English tutoring, and government resources.

While Christian voluntary agencies and sponsoring churches were experienced and enthusiastic about refugee resettlement, the last quarter of the twentieth century brought new conditions of religious diversity. In the past, Christian agencies typically had resettled their own people—fellow Catholics and Protestants who were primarily from Europe. Beginning in the 1970s, though, these agencies and churches were responsible for resettling refugees who were Muslims, Buddhists, ancestor worshippers, and animists.

In response, voluntary agencies and church sponsors aimed to put ideals of religious pluralism and freedom into practice. The USCCB, for example, urged its church sponsors to “be careful to respect their religion and their religious practices,” and LIRS emphasized that “respecting [refugees] as human beings means respecting their beliefs as well.”[3] But achieving this pluralistic vision of resettlement proved difficult. One problem was that Christian resettlement workers often did not have a sound understanding of Asian religions, especially Hmong beliefs and practices, which Christian sponsors sometimes viewed as primitive superstition and evil demon-worship. A second problem related to the first: respecting refugees’ religion was only possible when church sponsors saw that refugees had a religion in the first place. Hmong traditions utterly confound Americans’ Protestant-centric conceptions of religion: they are not institutionalized, centered in congregations, rooted in a sacred text, and known by a familiar name. For many Americans, traditional Hmong religion was so foreign that it was not even perceptible.

Finally, challenges arose because of the structure of American refugee care and the First Amendment tensions inherent in the church-state system of resettlement. Government and voluntary agencies delegated many responsibilities to local congregations, which were unequivocally religious institutions that tended to approach resettlement as a Christian ministry rather than as the delegated work of the government. The reliance on churches undercut the goal of pursuing refugee resettlement as a religiously neutral enterprise.

The Impact of Refugee Policies on Hmong Religious Life

Amid the tumultuous experience of resettlement, Hmong refugees strived to preserve their traditional beliefs and rituals. However, American refugee policies created several unexpected barriers to the practice of Hmong religion. To begin, American refugee policies deprived Hmong refugees of the family members and ritual experts whose presence and active participation were necessary for their elaborate traditional rituals. The dispersal policy scattered Hmong refugees across the country and separated them from their kin. In addition, the preference system under which refugees gained admission into the United States prioritized individuals who had been employed by the U.S. government and had served in the clandestine army that supported the CIA during the war in Laos. As a result, most of the first Hmong refugees to resettle were young people with little knowledge of Hmong rituals; left behind in the Thai refugee camps were the elders who were the Hmong community’s spiritual leaders and revered authorities on the proper practice of traditional ceremonies. The absence of relatives and ritual experts made traditional Hmong religion nearly impossible. Kia Vue, for instance, recalled this hardship when she resettled in Oklahoma in 1979. “At that time, there wasn’t a lot of people,” she said. “And the people who knew [the rituals], there wasn’t a lot of them there, so we just didn’t do it.”[4]

Hmong refugees were often resettled in cities, where it was hard to find the space and material needed to conduct rituals rooted in their historically agrarian culture. Ceremonies involving animals required open outdoor space, and relocating ceremonies to garages, apartments, and funeral homes produced tensions with neighbors and violated city regulations. Wang Kao Her, for example, explained why shamanism was difficult to practice in American hospitals. “[T]he old beliefs and traditions call for sacrifices, and the sacrifice must be done close to the sick person,” he said. “Also, burning incense and special ‘gold paper money’ must be done by the shaman in front of the altar inside the house. These things can’t be done in hospitals or American homes. It would disturb those who are not Hmong and also, with oxygen in the hospital room, it is not allowed.”[5]

Finally, Hmong refugees found themselves in close relationships with Christian resettlement workers and worried that practicing indigenous Hmong religion would imperil their relationship with the very people on whom they depended. Even if church sponsors strived to “respect their religion,” Hmong refugees did not necessarily realize that they were free to practice their traditions. Cziasarh Neng Yang emphasized how little Hmong people understood their freedoms when they first arrived. “We did not know the Constitution,” he said. “We did not know that there’s an amendment that allows people to believe what they believe and do what they do. We did not know that.”[6]

At the same time that American refugee policies undermined traditional Hmong religion, it introduced Hmong refugees to an alternative religion: Christianity, which, in Hmong, literally translates to “the new way.” By entrusting resettlement work to Christian agencies and congregations, the U.S. government created close and dependent relationships between Hmong refugees and church sponsors and set the stage for many Hmong refugees to choose to participate in Christian churches and adopt Christianity.

For many Hmong refugees, church sponsorship provided their first encounter with Christianity. Some Hmong refugees went to church against their will; sponsors drove to their homes, picked them up, and brought them. Mai Vang Thao, for example, preferred “traditional beliefs” and said, “we did not like Christianity, and we did not like to go to church.” Nonetheless, she attended church for years. “When we arrived in this country, the Americans took us to church,” she said, “so we went.”[7] Other Hmong refugees more willingly attended church and chose to be baptized, sometimes out of a sense of obligation and gratitude for church sponsors, and sometimes out of a belief that becoming Christian was a way to become more American.

More commonly, Hmong refugees felt spiritually vulnerable and saw Christianity as a convenient substitution for a traditional religion that they could no longer practice. Many Hmong refugees made the decision to adopt Christianity in the context of resettlement policies that created a scarcity of ritual knowledge, religious leadership, and material resources for their traditional ceremonies. Young Hmong refugees thus turned to the Christianity of their sponsors as an additional, alternative means of ensuring good health and peaceful relations with the spirit world. “When you don’t have a shaman to come and cure your family or conduct the ritual in your household, then you are hopeless,” explained Cziasarh Neng Yang. “You need something to lean on, so the Catholic priest, the church, were the one who [we] rely on, and they come and pray for you, and they serve as the substitute for the shaman.”[8]

Why the Hmong Matter

To be sure, Hmong experiences were, in many ways, unique. Hmong Americans constitute a relatively small ethnic group in the United States. Compared to other immigrants and refugees who arrived during the same period, they faced a particularly difficult adjustment to American life. Moreover, the fact that Hmong traditions were so unfamiliar to Americans and so far outside mainstream ideas of what constitutes “religion” meant that the encounter between the Hmong refugees and their Christian sponsors was especially complex.

But it is precisely because of Hmong people’s uniqueness that this story illuminates the complications of church-state collaboration in a multireligious society. The Hmong resettlement experience renders in sharp relief the possibilities and perils of using religious organizations for social service provision. Moreover, it raises critical questions about the capacity of American individuals and institutions to accommodate religious difference. Because Hmong people have beliefs and practices that are incommensurable with Protestant-centric norms of religion, an exploration of Hmong religious change serves as a useful limit case. Through Hmong stories, we can discern the problem of realizing aspirations of pluralism and freedom in a nation where protections and privileges benefit only those whose religion is recognized as legitimate.

Finally, while scholars tend to discuss how religion influences politics and policy, it is just as important to understand how politics and policy influence religion. Hmong experiences offer a powerful illustration of how the state shapes religious beliefs, practices, and identities, especially for minority groups. By exposing how government resettlement policies redirected the religious trajectories of individuals and communities, the story of Hmong religious change challenges the common characterization of American religious life as autonomous, free, and competitive. Instead, it reveals the power of the state to structure the putatively free religious marketplace, in a way that is less than neutral.

Melissa Borja is an assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, where she is a core faculty member in Asian Pacific Islander American Studies. She is the author of Follow the New Way: American Refugee Resettlement Policy and Hmong Religious Change (2023). Her article draws on information contained in her upcoming book.

[1] Paja Thao and Dwight Conquergood, I Am a Shaman: A Hmong Life Story with Ethnographic Commentary, trans. Xa Thao, Southeast Asian Refugee Studies Occasional Papers 8 (Minneapolis: Southeast Asian Refugee Studies Project, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Minnesota, 1989), 24.

[2] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Indochina Evacuation and Refugee Problem Part III: Reception and Resettlement in the U.S., 94th Cong., 1st sess., 1975, p. 13.

[3] Migration and Refugee Services, United States Catholic Conference, Sponsorship: Access to a New Life, Correspondence by Name, 1979–1981, box 2, American Refugee Committee Records (Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul); Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, Face to Face: The Ministry of Refugee Resettlement, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services Assorted Publications, Lutheran Council in the U.S.A., Department of Immigration and Refugee Service, 10/1 (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Archive, El Grove Village, IL).

[4] Kia Vue, interview by Melissa Borja, translated by Maile Vue, Sept. 8, 2012, St. Paul, MN.

[5] “A Conversation with Wang Kao Her,” Southeast Asian Ministry Newsletter, March 1993, Southeast Asian Ministry Records, St. Paul, MN.

[6] Cziasarh Neng Yang, interview by Melissa Borja, Sept. 17, 2012, St. Paul, MN.

[7] Mai Vang Thao, OH 86.2, Oral History Interviews of the Hmong Women’s Action Team Oral History Project (Hmoob Thaj Yeeb Oral History Project) 1999–2000, Minnesota Historical Society.

[8] Cziasarh Neng Yang interview.