Anchorage, Alaska Douglas Bennion, a 20-year-old Mormon missionary with a buttery complexion and gelled hair, rides in an immaculate silver Mercury Sable through the Rangeview Mobile Home Park in Muldoon to where the bumpy street narrows and the park takes on the feel of somewhere else.
It’s just after dinnertime. Fish sauce and the starchy aroma of bubbling rice sweeten the air. Vegetables grow in place of grass in plywood-fenced backyards. As Bennion’s car pulls to a stop, children drop their ball in the street.
“Wassup, Elder Bennion?” one calls as he gets out of the car.
Standing on the soft mud in his suit and tie, Bennion slaps high-fives all around.
Missionaries have always loved Alaska. Pioneer Protestants and Roman Catholics flocked here 100 years ago to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Now the migration is in the opposite direction. Mormon missionaries who live here are welcoming non-Christian newcomers to their flock.
In Anchorage’s fast-growing Hmong community, Hmong speakers such as Bennion, a Utah-reared young man on loan from Brigham Young University, play a central role in helping immigrants, many newly arrived from years in Thai refugee camps, to learn about American culture.
Though there are efforts by other groups, the Mormons from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsor the largest outreach into one of the city’s most needy and isolated immigrant groups, literally going door to door.
The Hmong community has at least quadrupled since detailed census information came out in 2000, from about 300 to approximately 1,200.
Community leaders’ estimates are closer to 2,000. About 700 Hmong students attend Anchorage schools.
Hmong in Anchorage are growing the same way other immigrant communities grow: An adventurous few settle here and extended families follow.
Mormon leaders say roughly 300 people are involved in some way with their church. About 100 are part of a newly established Hmong congregation that meets Sundays at the Baxter Chapel, an LDS church across from Cheney Lake in East Anchorage.
In 2000, almost every Hmong person in Anchorage was living below the poverty level, according to census estimates. An average of seven people lived in each home, nearly all of them rental units. The median household income was $25,500 – $30,000 below the city median. Only 13 of 203 people over 25 had a bachelor’s degree. Everyone spoke a language other than English.
The Mormons support hundreds of these families with donated clothes, furniture, food, employment assistance, spiritual guidance and friendship. Missionaries are candid that their goal is to convert the Hmong, though they say they visit and provide assistance to many who may not convert.
Hmong with LDS ties practice an array of spiritual traditions. Most households are split, with younger people choosing to convert while older relatives remain loyal to the old ways. Many blend the old with the new, attending church events and welcoming missionaries into their homes while calling in a shaman to tend the sick and tacking metallic “spirit paper” on the walls to ward off evil spirits.
For the young and converted, taking on Mormon beliefs is often bound up with a desire to fit into American society, and to succeed.
“In America, there is no way we can survive with the old culture; our culture has run to the end,” said Tom Lee, who converted in April, several years after he encountered missionaries in his Palmer yard while building a chicken coop. “A lot of people think converting to Christianity is the way you become a new people.”
Bennion, accompanied by a church chaperone, knocks on the metal door of a mobile home in East Anchorage. Maichee Her, 8, peeks out, holding Kevin, a messy-faced baby, on her tiny hip. She grins and moves out of the way. Bennion slips off his shoes, sticks his head in the door and gives a cheerful hello that sounds like “Nya-zhjong!”
Nine people – four adults and five children – live in the two-bedroom double-wide. Music plays from the television. Plastic bags of donated clothes sit open along the walls. As is common practice when missionaries visit, grandmother Shoua Vue, 67, sets out two folding chairs. Everyone else sits on the floor, which is partially covered with woven mats.
Until he was transferred to Fairbanks last month, Bennion and a companion missionary or a chaperone spent most evenings making calls like this on Hmong in trailers and crowded, lower-end rentals in Mountain View and Muldoon.
Bennion picked up basic Hmong from another missionary over the course of six weeks. He has an uncommon gift for the language, in which words have different meaning depending on the tone used to pronounce them. People at church say it’s because he has a musical ear – he plays half a dozen instruments and sings hymns in both Hmong and English in a lilting tenor. In his bag, he carries translated versions of the Book of Mormon, the Bible and hymnals, though many of the Hmong he visits can neither read nor write their language.
Bennion functions at once as a spiritual adviser, a counselor, a friend and a social worker. In a given night, he may drink a bowl of spicy noodle soup with a family, arrange the drop-off of a used bunk bed, lead a living-room charades tournament, give advice on where to find work, and explain to a circle of children the idea of resurrection using a handful of laminated, crayon-colored characters spread across the floor.
“It’s a lot about building a relationship of trust with the family,” he said one night on the way back to the church on Baxter Road. “Once you have the family’s trust, you can get a lot further.”
Often Bennion explains why he is there by putting his hand on his chest and saying, “I love you guys a lot.”
This family in the East Anchorage trailer is one of his favorites. He sometimes visits on Mondays, his one weekly personal day, to throw around a football and wrestle with the kids. Two of the adults – Kong Xiong, 26, and his wife, Meng Yang, 19 – have recently converted. The couple have two children, Tou, 4, and Kevin, 1.
Bowing his head, Bennion offers a prayer in Hmong and opens his Book of Mormon to share a passage about the power of conversion:
“(The voice of the Holy Ghost) did pierce them to the very soul, it did cause their hearts to burn,” he reads in Hmong.
He asks Xiong to read on. The children bounce behind him on a mattress covered with old clothes. The baby begins to cry.
Yang and Xiong came from Thailand about two years ago, and neither speaks English well. They spent a year in Wisconsin before moving to Anchorage. Xiong got a job painting houses through the church. Yang tried to register for high school but found she was too old. She is now taking English classes and looking for work. Their decision to convert is in part a matter of pragmatism, she said.
The church offers them a community of people, Hmong and non-Hmong, on which they can draw for help and advice. Already, church people have brought them food, furniture and clothes, including Yang’s too-big secondhand shoes.
“The Americans won’t let you live miserably,” Yang said through a translator. “In Thailand, no one helps. It was miserable.
“If I didn’t believe, I was scared they wouldn’t help,” she said.
Vue, Yang’s grandmother, refuses to convert, in part because her husband, who lives in Minnesota, continues to practice the old ways. She is his third wife, and she moved here because he lives with his other wives and their children. Still, if he dies, she believes she must help call his spirit back to Earth. The spirits of the dead can help or harm the living, she explained.
“When you have sickness and headaches, we call the shamans to do a religion party to help you out,” she said through a translator. “They wear black cloth over their face, go to the other world, ask the ancestors to heal you.”
When the shaman says the spirits are hungry, Vue leaves out a bowl of rice and they feed off the steam. She hangs spirit paper on the wall to keep sickness out of the house.
Vue doesn’t mind the missionary visits. It’s good for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be part of the church and learn American culture, she said.
“There will be others that won’t believe in Christianity” to carry on the traditions, she said.
Tom Lee, 44, the recent convert and one of the most involved members of the Hmong congregation, often serves as a translator during church services held in a cinder-block classroom Sunday mornings. He comes from a long line of shamans.
Barely a teenager in Laos, Lee was enlisted by the United States to help fight the Viet Cong. Communist soldiers shot his father, a shaman and village leader. His mother died of an illness linked to chemical weapons. His village was torched.
At 15, he escaped with 150 other Hmong people to a Thai refugee camp. He came to the United States in 1979. He moved to Alaska from Merced, Calif., in 1998 because he wanted his sons to go to better schools.
For many years, he was a practicing Buddhist. Then, two years ago, two missionaries came into his yard in Palmer. He was building a chicken coop, and they offered to help.
“The next time they come, I was cutting the wood,” he said. “We chopped down a couple of trees. They keep dropping by. The next time we could sit down and talk about the gospel.”
Lee and his wife decided to join the church because it is so supportive.
“If I ever run into some kind of disaster, they may be able to help me out, because I don’t have family,” he said.
After he was baptized, Lee packed up his Buddha statues and sent them to his Buddhist teacher. He’s at work baptizing his dead family members, including his shaman father, as Mormons. The unbaptized are desperate in a spiritual way, he said, much like those still living in refugee camps are desperate in a physical way:
“Being baptized is like coming to America.”
To be successful in the United States, which he believes is a Christian country, you have to convert, he said.
“People that stay in this land has to accept the gospel. If they don’t, I believe they will not get to prosper.”
Even though he’s very involved in the church, Lee still sometimes finds himself thinking of old ways almost instinctively. When a baby gets sick, he remembers what his father might have done to cast out evil spirits. He still sometimes dreams of his Buddhist teacher.
“Many of the old ways are still in my mind,” he said. “It’s in my mind because I grew up with it.”
On one of Bennion’s visits to Xiong and Yang, his audience included Maichee Her, the second-grade daughter of a woman who lives with the couple. She lay on her stomach with neighborhood children as he gave a religious lesson.
Afterward, she ran into the back bedroom to retrieve a charm, a black rectangle the size of a domino. A shaman gave it to them to help the family next door, she said. The mother had cancer and eventually died.
“We rubbed this on her,” she told Bennion in Hmong and pressed it into his hand. “It helped a lot.”
In Hmong households visited by missionaries, the children are usually the best English speakers. The parents, who are likely to work, may convert, but the grandparents, who often serve as caregivers, don’t. The children live in many worlds, serving as translators between their elders and the English-speaking world and moving between Mormon tradition and their grandparents’ old-world faith.
“The kids are much more receptive to what we teach,” Bennion said. “They are untainted by not only old-world beliefs but by the outside world’s opinion about Christianity in general, including Mormons.”
One of the biggest challenges for the missionaries is to convince the Hmong that divine messages come from interior, not exterior, sources, he said.
Mormons believe in the Holy Ghost, which has an inner voice that guides the faithful on the right path. Hmong believe a shaman communicates advice from dead relatives and can provide remedies, like the charm, for spiritual and physical healing. Relations with a shaman can be the hardest thing for the converted to give up, and some don’t entirely.
“It’s so ingrained, they continue to participate in things like that,” Bennion said. “Part of our work is to help them keep the part of culture that’s good, like the costumes, and the dances are beautiful. That’s awesome. ... But we want to help them let go of some of the other things that aren’t in keeping.”
“At times I feel sad for them because I know they are going to give up something they have done for a long time, but I know they are going to get something better.”
Everyone welcomes the union of Mormon and Hmong. Mark Pfeifer, the Texas-based editor of Hmong Studies Journal, studies Hmong in the United States. Everywhere there are Hmong, there are Mormons, he said. The missionaries’ language skills help them to gain inroads in the communities.
“I have only met a few non-Hmong who were able to get fluent,” he said. “They were all Mormons.”
Asking the Hmong to give up ancestor worship is like asking them to give up being Hmong, he said.
“People need to be respected for their traditional religion,” he said.
Mormons aren’t the only Christians reaching out to the new immigrants. In Anchorage, several Hmong families began attending Central Lutheran Church several years ago, said pastor Marcia Wakeland. The church tried to get a Hmong pastor but couldn’t.
“Culturally, if you are their pastor, pretty much you are on call for their lives for everything. We just couldn’t do it,” she said. “We aren’t set up the way the Mormon church is.”
The Lutheran church doesn’t have an evangelical mission to convert Hmong church members, she said. She tries to preach a mission of love and acceptance and discourages elders from scaring children with graphic stories about evil spirits.
“Mainly, I am just trying to preserve their culture,” she said. “They have never had a land or a country. Their culture is who they are, and the kids don’t need that taken away from them.”
Those Hmong who go to the church practice a hybrid religion, she said. Their first interest is the support the church community offers.
“They are pragmatic. Just pragmatic. They know how to survive,” she said. “They are never really Lutheran. The culture is stronger than anything.”