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The sounds of jingling bells and "Joy to the World" filled the sanctuary last Sunday at Wheelock United Methodist Church in St. Paul, where Christmas traditions have taken a twist.

The "bells" were actually small coins jingling on ornate Hmong dresses and vests worn by congregants in the pews. And the rock musicians rehearsing the Christmas standards were all Hmong musicians, singing in Hmong, on a stage decorated with a large Advent wreath and an American flag. The Rev. Tsuchue Vang surveyed the convivial crowd with a slight smile. For seven years, he ministered in Communist Laos, where he could be tossed into jail for holding a Christmas service without government permission.

Today, he's glad to oversee a church where East and West comfortably mesh.

Like other immigrant congregations across Minnesota, the church on Wheelock Parkway stands as an example of the countless ways this Christmas holiday has been adapted to serve Christians around the world.

"It balances what we need culturally and what happens in America," said See Yang, 28, a medical receptionist from Cottage Grove, who on this day was wearing an embroidered Hmong dress and a headpiece that would be at home in the mountains of Laos.

"Church is modernizing in that way," she said. "It's a happy medium."

Minnesota is home to nearly 580,000 foreign-born residents and their children — each bringing their language, music and cultural traditions to dozens of growing immigrant churches.

For the more than 60,000 Hmong in the state, Christmas and Christianity were relatively foreign concepts. Traditionally, Hmong spiritual leaders have been shamans, and in Laos, Christianity is a small minority religion, said Vang.

Minnesota is playing a role in changing that. Vang, who emigrated to the United States and attended seminary in Minnesota, established more than 70 small congregations around Laos during seven years serving there, meeting discreetly in houses and small buildings. Likewise, United Methodist Bishop Bruce Ough, who oversees Minnesota and the Dakotas, also presides over his denomination's work in Southwest Asia.

Santa hats and coins

Walk into Wheelock United Methodist Church, one of about 25 Hmong Christian congregations in the state, and it's easy to see the cross-cultural connections.

Energetic children in the back pews, waiting to participate in the Christmas pageant, are not dressed in robes of Middle Eastern shepherds. Rather, they embrace Jesus as their own by wearing colorful Hmong dresses and black vests — and in little Mary's case, with a white shawl over her head.

The altar area holds a dozen poinsettias and Minnesota greenery, as well as a large screen for displaying lyrics to the hymns — all in Hmong.

For the first reading in the rehearsal, an older man in a long black velvet shirt, embroidered with the coins, takes the podium. He reads from the Bible's book of Luke, Chapter 1, in Hmong, while wearing a furry Santa hat.

After more readings and hymns, Vang delivered a sermon about "God's gift of love to us" at Christmas. He spoke in Hmong, but the random English phrases that kept popping out offered a clue to his theme. "Department store very expensive." "That is her wish." "Disappointed."

He concluded on this note:

"Today is a day to love a family member," said Vang. "Touch them with God's love. Look out for their interests and needs, just as Joseph did for Mary, and Jesus does for us."

With that, folks headed down the steps to the cafeteria, where huge platters of chicken and rice and fruits and desserts awaited them.

Christmas and communism

To preach freely before a large congregation is a "gift." Vang says.

Born in Laos, he came to the United States as a young man and eventually studied theology. Nine years ago, he returned to his homeland as a "foreign missionary."

Religion there is controlled by the state, he said; to hold a Christmas celebration, he had to get started in September, submitting a request to the village chief or police.

"You need to write how many people will be there, who will speak. … And if people are coming from other villages, you need permission from those villages," he said. "If you celebrate without a permit, everyone gets arrested."

Vang's Christmas celebrations in Laos started the morning of Dec. 24 and continued through Christmas Day, he said.

They include a long pageant, countless hymns, different worship segments and, of course, a huge feast of a freshly slaughtered cow or pig and worshipers contributing whatever food they could.

Vang tries to blend what he learned in Laos with his experiences living with Hmong in the United States. Many in his congregation appreciate the deep level of understanding he has of cultural practices and subtleties.

The result: An unusual church, headed by a Laotian missionary who served in a homeland many of his churchgoers never knew, with a rock band performing "O Lug Lug Emanues" — "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

"We like it because there's two sides of it," said Shoua Yang, a machinist from Little Canada, sitting with his wife and young son in the church. "You can have your traditional side, and your Christianity side. They fit really good."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612 673-4511