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Deacon Joe Vang
Deacon Joe Vang

Deacon Joe came to Wisconsin as a refugee from Laos in 1976. He became Catholic in 1979 and was ordained a deacon in 2010. He currently belongs to Sacred Heart Parish in Appleton.

The Catholic Church played a role in bringing us here. It was parishes that really helped us get settled and become self-sufficient. People helped by teaching English, by taking refugees to the grocery store, by helping get kids enrolled in schools, and helping adults find jobs. The majority of Hmong are not Catholic, but we still remember who brought us here.  

My experience at Catholic parishes has been mostly good. Sometimes there have been one or two people who are not welcoming. They didn’t hate me, but they didn’t seem to like me either. I did not feel totally isolated but I would have preferred to have conversation with more people and to carry on longer, rather than “How are you? How’s the weather?” and things like that. That doesn’t keep me long in the church after Mass, so I left, even though a lot of other people continued to stay.  

At St. Bernard, they had a program called family matching. That project seemed to go well because they’d go to church at the same time, they’d sit together, talk to each other after church while eating donuts or coffee. Not just in the church, but outside too. When you go hunting or fishing, you go with a person you know very well and you consider that person a friend. You feel comfortable to go with them without any fear.

I have not really experienced direct racism in the church. One thing that I remember is sometimes when we shake hands for the peace, people who were behind me or next to me, instead of turning to me to shake hands, they turn away and shake hands with someone else. It made me feel like they didn’t like me. Why would they go to someone who is two times farther from me? It continued that way each week. My wife noticed this too, that they wouldn’t look at us, pretend like we are not there. I thought that it could be hate or maybe they were afraid.

I’ve seen racism in the wider community, but I don’t bring these things up at church because it’s not an easy issue. If you put it in the paper and say, “Come next Wednesday and talk about racism in the church,” I don’t know how many people are going to show up. People might say “I’m not worried about it” or “I’m not going to say what’s on my mind.” If people aren’t sure if they will be accepted or if they will be blamed for what they say, I’m not sure how many people will come. 

One difficulty in the Hmong community has been finding priests for our Masses.  Having a Hmong Mass in the language that the parents and grandparents can understand what is being said, they will bring the children with them as well.  English in the Bible and English in the store are different so there is benefit to having a Hmong Mass.

In order for the church to be more welcoming, I think when we come to church, we could sit next to each other. If we sit so far apart, it makes we me wonder if we really like each other, even if we don’t express it in words. Also before Mass, we can greet the people around us and say, “How are you?” These simple things mean I like you, I want to know about you, I’m not afraid of you, whether you are young or old, male or female. This is important.

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