When William Siong came to the United States in the late 1980s as a 15-year-old Hmong refugee, he was seeking a better life, having lost both his parents during the Vietnam War. After graduating from high school and college, Siong felt the call to ministry; in 2007 he earned his Master of Divinity degree from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

Just three years later Siong would take the helm of a new mission-start congregation, made up mostly of Hmong members, in the St. Paul Area Synod. The congregation was originally founded as Good Samaritan Lutheran Church, with its mission partner as Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Brighton, Minn. On April 14 that congregation—now known as Eternal Flame Lutheran—signed its official ELCA congregation charter. The charter represents Eternal Flame’s transition from mission development status to full-fledged ELCA congregation.

“I was moved to tears during worship on the Charter Sunday for Eternal Flame as so many adults and children came forward to sign the charter,” said Patricia J. Lull, bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod. “This is the first new congregation we have received in my 10 years as bishop, and my heart swelled with joy and gratitude for all the Spirit is doing as many members stepped forward and we voted to receive them at the [2024] synod assembly.”

“It doesn’t matter for me who you are—we can work as a family, we can live together.”

The Hmong people are an Indigenous group in East and Southeast Asia, with many residing in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Southwest China. Eighteen different Hmong clans call the St. Paul area home, each worshiping its own spirits and ancestors.

Siong said the clans rarely mix, preferring to rely on the support of their own, but Eternal Flame connects people across clans and nationalities.

“In our culture as Hmong, we have a limit—if you’re not in my clan, even though you’re sick or getting into trouble, you have to go back to your clan leader,” he said. “But our church is totally opposite. It doesn’t matter for me who you are—we can work as a family, we can live together.”

That open, welcoming message of faith has resonated among the community served by Eternal Flame. Siong—pastor of the congregation, alongside Jua Jay Her—said the congregation has grown from just five families when it started to 45 active families today. More than 100 adults and children signed the charter, including four generations of one family.

Making connections, bridging differences

New mission congregations such as Eternal Flame aim to reach diverse socioeconomic groups, ethnic and multiracial communities, and younger populations.

“All congregations are called to witness to the love of God in the context where they are located,” Lull said. “With a significant population of Asian Americans in St. Paul, Eternal Flame continues to address spiritual and physical needs within the faith community and within the wider community.”

That wider community also includes the ELCA. In recent years, members of Eternal Flame’s congregation have given their time and taken on leadership roles in the St. Paul Area Synod.

“This is a congregation that has raised up leaders for the synod, with one member on synod council, another the newly elected secretary of the synod and a third member of synod council from the Hmong congregation that formed the two pastors at Eternal Flame,” Lull said. “God gives the church the leaders that are needed, and I am so grateful as the bishop to learn from these colleagues.”

“Eternal Flame continues to address spiritual and physical needs within the faith community and within the wider community.”

Much of Eternal Flame’s congregation is made up of young immigrants—young adults and teens, families with children—and Siong sees the church’s role as a lifeline for these congregants, who may be overwhelmed by day-to-day life as they try to establish themselves in a new country.

“Knowing that they’re very busy, that they’re raising their kids, they’re still in college, they’re still fighting for survival—if they don’t have faith, it can be very hard,” Siong said. “They have to have faith, they have to have God in their life, someone whom they can trust and rely on to help them.”

Siong said that reaching members of the local Hmong community can sometimes be complicated because their clan-based culture is so insular. But by living the example of God’s unconditional love, Eternal Flame has found a way to make connections, build community and bridge differences among not only those in the congregation but the Hmong community at large. Meeting people where they are and simply offering love and support shows them the power Jesus can have in their lives, Siong said.

“Let’s be a friend first,” he said. “Don’t talk about faith when you are with the non-Christian—let your actions speak first. Help them the best you can, and they will look at what is in your heart. And Jesus will come out from your heart to them, and they will come to Jesus.”

Jennifer Bringle
Jennifer Bringle is a writer, editor and lifelong Lutheran who lives in Greensboro, N.C., with her husband and young son.  

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