Helping Second-Gen Hmong Reconnect with God
“We want to be a church that makes a difference in our community,” says Greg Rhodes, Pastor of RiverLife Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.
RiverLife is only a few years old and is primarily composed of second-generation and third-generation Hmong Americans. The Hmong are one of the ethnic groups of China and Southeast Asia that immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam War.
After attending a traditional Hmong church for many years, Pastor Greg and his wife, Pang Foua, started RiverLife in September of 2014.
They saw a need for a church that would specifically reach the children and grandchildren of first-generation Hmong immigrants, many of whom had stopped attending church.
Pastor Greg discovered that “second-gen” Hmong are looking for many of the same things in a church that their millennial peers throughout the U.S. desire. They want a church that will minister to them in their various stages of life, whether they’re young, single professionals, or couples with growing families.
They appreciate a casual, relational atmosphere and a high-tech service. At the same time, many second-gen Hmong are also looking for a church that embraces their bicultural identity as Hmong Americans.
To meet these needs, RiverLife makes space for its young adults to have influence and to start new ministries. The environment is informal—people of all dress and appearance are welcome. Every Sunday, all attendees wear nametags and are encouraged to meet new friends. The church also provides coffee and snacks.
Many of these characteristics, while now common in American churches, are new in Hmong churches. Pastor Greg says, “While we haven’t done a formal survey, we estimate about three-quarters of our folks weren’t attending church prior to RiverLife. We’ve managed by God’s grace to create a place where people feel really comfortable coming back to church.”
When RiverLife first began, it was mobile, setting up and tearing down before services each week. With the help of the North Central District and a loan from ADF, the church has been able to purchase a permanent building and make some much-needed repairs.
The new building is in the East side of St. Paul, which has one of the highest concentrations of Hmong in the Twin Cities. The loan has enabled RiverLife to make several significant renovations—replacing the new roof, repairing mold damage, installing new carpet, and lifting the outdoor concrete walkway to prevent flooding.
After moving into the permanent building, RiverLife’s attendance increased by 15 percent as people from the surrounding neighborhood started attending regularly. Prior to the move, the congregation was almost entirely Hmong, with some interracial couples. Now, about 15 percent of attendants are not Hmong.
There’s no doubt that God is perfectly capable of working in any environment. But Pastor Greg observes, “A lot of our folks are re-learning or learning for the first time how to connect with God, and our desire is to remove as many obstacles as possible.”