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Sunday, May 1, 2016

SE Asians mark a decade in church

Thursday, February 7, 2008

In 1977, Storm Lake represented a new start for people like Barry Thongvahn - Laotian, Tai Dam and Vietnamese refugees forced to flee their homelands under communist conflict.

Thongvahn could not have foreseen what would become of the small southeast Asian group that first came to Storm Lake with little knowledge of the language, culture or religion of their new home.

On Saturday, the Southeast Asian Community Christian Church will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Thongvahn, who first worked in Storm Lake as a janitor, is the lay minister for this unique congregation.

"After almost 30 years, these people feel very comfortable in Storm Lake. For me, this is my hometown," Thongvahn said.

"The Southeast Asian Church provides a lot of things that are important to these people - not just to worship on Sunday, it is where they come for legal help, or to get started applying for citizenship," he said. "For those who are new to the community or the United States, with a language barrier, we try to help them understand."

At its peak, Storm Lake had 300-400 southeast Asian residents working at the former IBP meat plant alone.

The families gradually became Americanized - perhaps too much so, Thongvahn reflects.

"The older ones who first came here have mostly passed. The younger ones have finished school and moved away, never to come back. My own children have gone to college and gone on with their lives elsewhere, and that is how it goes."

The southeast Asian population stopped growing several years ago, and the congregation of the church is not what it was in the beginning, he admits.

Those who remain in Storm Lake have become part of the community. They appreciate the safety and peace they have found here, the lay minister said.

"These people work very hard. There are still perhaps 200 or more at Tyson. With new groups of people, the Hispanics, the Sudanese and others, the town is different, but in some ways the same.

"When we first came, it was the church members who took us and led us around and taught us what to do. The church has always provided help, and the diverse population of Storm Lake will need the church in the future to help all of the people we have and will have," Thongvahn said.

"If you need some help, you come in."

In 1991, the general Council of Prospect Hill Presbytery ramped up its own form of assistance, recognizing that the southeast Asian people of the community now needed a church of their own.

The Presbyterian Church organization approved an Ecumenical Southeast Asian Mission project, under the leadership of St. Mark's Lutheran, First United Methodist and Lakeside Presbyterian churches in Storm Lake.

A Rural/Urban Development arm of the Presbyterian Church USA offered a $3,000 grant to help get things started. By late 1992, representatives of the three churches and the Lao-speaking community had formed the Southeast Asian Ministry Task Force. After meeting monthly two years, the ministry was well organized, and Tom LoVan was called to be the first pastor to the southeast Asian congregation. He served for only a year.

Thongvahn, an energetic and well-known representative of the southeast Asian community, was commissioned as a lay pastor to the congregation in 1997, and has served in that role ever since, as well as being chaplain of the Tyson plant, Storm Lake's largest employer.

The Southeast Asian Ministry was able to buy a vacant church building in Storm Lake in 1999, with the help of its three parent congregations. The building is now owned by the Presbytery of Prospect Hill.

After its initial growth, the church has stabilized along with the southeast Asian population in Storm Lake.

Thonvahn has gone on to be active on many levels, including serving on the Commission on the Status of Iowans of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage for the state, and serving as an advisor to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the issues of Asian Americans. He has shared his story in special events at Buena Vista University and elsewhere.

Qui-Je Zhang, a Chinese missionary, joined the ministry in 2000 as an education and music director, but her position ended in 2005 due to a lack of funds.

The church is still working on alternatives to re-enthuse its Sunday School program for children, which is critical to the future of the church, Thongvahn said.

The mission goal today, as it was over a decade ago, is to address the spiritual, emotional, social and physical needs for the southeast Asian people of Storm Lake, explains Duane Queen, pastor of Lakeside Presbyterian Church.

Within their own building, the congregation can study and worship the Christian religion in their own language, while the mission also works to help the other residents of the area to better understand the issues of the Lao-speakers.

"As someone has said, 'We used to send people out to mission fields, but now the mission has come to us,'" Queen says.

The development of the church has been an American success story - the early southeast Asian Storm Lakers came from refugee camps after harrowing escapes from their native regions, with churches leading the way in the resettlement effort under former Iowa Governor Robert Ray. Most had been Buddhist.

"These people experienced Christ's love through the local churches and became Christian," Queen said - then reached out to fellow southeast Asians around the area and shared the religion they had discovered with them.

What started as an unusual local mission project has become a full-fledged, respected Storm Lake church.

And that, the members and their supporters feel, is worthy of celebration.

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