The Hmong people are an ethnic group whose history emerges from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. France and the United States recruited thousands of Hmong people in Laos to fight during the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees then fled to Thailand seeking political asylum. Thousands of these refugees resettled, beginning in the late 1970s, mostly in the United States, but also in Australia, France, French Guyana, Canada, and South America.
In 1979 and 1980, most of the Hmong people who came to Canada from refugee camps in Thailand were sponsored by Mennonites. The Hmong language had only recently been codified in written form, and this placed the Hmong people lower on the priority list for government-sponsored refugee immigration. Mennonite Central Committee Canada worked to persuade the government to admit the Hmong and helped to facilitate private sponsorships for them.
The cultural barriers for these refugees far exceeded those of European-origin Mennonite refugees who came to Canada in the 1920s and after World War II. Few incidents were as dramatic as what occurred in Glenbush, Saskatchewan, when a group of thirteen Hmong refugees from Laos were placed in isolated rural homes their first night in Canada. The next morning the Mennonite hosts asked the refugee men to help complete the digging of a septic field with shovels. A Hmong woman became hysterical as she believed the men were digging their graves; it took hours to find a translator who was able to clarify the misunderstanding. These families eventually located in Kitchener, Ontario.
By the late 1980s, 80 percent of the Hmong in Canada lived in Waterloo Region. Worship services for the Hmong in the region began with the Vin Vanh Vong family, who were sponsored by the Steinmann Mennonite Church near Baden. Hmong families began holding regular services in New Hamburg in April 1980. In early 1981 representatives of the various churches that had sponsored Hmong families—Mennonite, Christian Reformed, Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic—met with Hmong leaders and MCC Ontario to discuss how to best meet the spiritual needs of the Hmong community. As a result, a nondenominational Hmong Christian Church formed that year. Since most Hmong lived in the city, the group asked First Mennonite Church in Kitchener to provide space, and they worshiped there beginning in February 1981. In January 1982 the group asked to be identified as Mennonite. Tong Hang, a single young man in his twenties, displayed leadership skills within the Hmong Christian Church and became its pastor in 1983. He studied at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener and also worked as a refugee settlement worker for local Hmong, Laotian, and Mien refugees.
The Hmong Christian Church joined the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec in March 1984, and became known as the Hmong Christian Church (Mennonite). The congregation bought its own building in 1996, and changed its name to First Hmong Mennonite Church.
Some traditions, like customs around marriage, the Hmong New Year celebrations, and needlework art were carried into the Hmong Christian Church, and some patterns from earlier Christian connections in Southeast Asia also persisted—like immersion baptism and use of a Hmong hymnal published by the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The worship style was much more informal than in traditional Mennonite congregations.
To learn more about Mennonites and refugee sponsorship, read In Search of Promised Lands.