"Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. You can see it is important," said Cher Lor, a member of the congregation at Holy Apostles, an Episcopal church in St. Paul, Minn. that is the only Hmong-majority congregation across the entire denomination. "But the word mercy itself, we don't have in Hmong. So we are using 'hulb,' which is a concept something like love. We believe that is the closest."
The Book of Common Prayer is the foundational text of the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its roots trace to the Church of England's split from Roman Catholicism in the 16th century, and ever since it has dictated morning and evening prayers, the rites of Holy Communion, baptism, marriage and funeral services, and much more. It typically runs to about 1,000 pages.
"Far more than a service manual, it's an embodiment of our life and our faith," said the Rev. William Bulson, the former pastor at Holy Apostles who continues to lead the translation effort.
For Hmong Episcopalians to enter fully into the church's fold, it's important that they have a Book of Common Prayer to call their own. It's been a long and painstaking process, but necessary for a mainline denomination struggling for relevance to new generations of U.S. immigrants.
The unique status of Holy Apostles, a modest wood-and-concrete parish on the working-class east side of Minnesota's capital city, has earned special attention in the wider Episcopal Church. James Jelinek, the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, is retiring in February, and he recently chose Holy Apostles as the site of his last Sunday parish visit as bishop. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, has also visited.
"Just in practical terms, if the Episcopal Church doesn't adapt, it's going to die, and it should die," Jelinek said.
The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group who come mainly from Laos. Tens of thousands of Hmong people fled in the late 1970s after a Communist takeover of Laos, with the largest groups settling in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. In St. Paul, Hmong immigrants have established their own institutions and businesses and won political office.
The Hmong religious tradition has roots in animism, a belief in spirits and connections between all living things. But various Christian denominations have made inroads in converting the Hmong in recent decades, with particular success by the Christian Missionary Alliance, an Evangelical Protestant denomination, and by Roman Catholicism.
The group found its way to Holy Apostles, which was struggling with declining membership. "We were at about 60 people on a Sunday, and I remember in late 2004 the bishop told me, 'OK, we've given it a good run, but you have until the end of 2005 to turn it around or we're shutting you down,'" Bulson said.
One recent day, Bulson and Cher Lo were sweating over the Book of Common Prayer's Baptism rites. And so "Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit" became "Peb cav txog Tswv Ntuj: Leej Tub thiab Leej Ntuj Plig Ntshiab."
The team hopes to finish in a few months. Though most of Holy Apostles' Hmong parishioners speak English, Wilson-Barnard said the older ones don't. But the project, she said, still feels usa.anglican.org/