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“Religion, Culture, and Politics at Sunisa Lee Celebration”

By September 12, 2022No Comments7 min read

Sunisa Lee is the first Hmong American Olympic athlete. A celebration was held for her on July 30, 2022 at a local Hmong charter school in St. Paul, MN. This celebration marked the one year anniversary of the State of Minnesota recognizing “Sunisa Lee Day” after her historic win of the Olympic gold in Tokyo. Our family was eager to celebrate Sunisa in person with the local Hmong American community! 

When we arrived, Sunisa’s limo had just pulled into the school parking lot. We watched the entourage preparing for their procession. Having preached on Palm Sunday earlier this year, the procession reminded me of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The two processions were similar since neither Sunisa (a young Hmong American female gymnast) nor Jesus (a marginal Jew under the Roman empire) fit the mold of power within their religious, cultural, and political contexts. 

Their difference, however, was that Jesus’ entourage lacked worldly status. He entered Jerusalem on a young colt and was accompanied by a group of “nobodies.” In contrast, Sunisa was accompanied by an entourage consisting of local politicians, St. Paul police officers, top financial donors, Hmong veterans, and Hmong clan leaders. 

To be clear, I suspect this was the result of the planning committee and perhaps somewhat reflective of the community’s expectations, but not Sunisa’s personal appeal. I find it unlikely that a young, second-generation Hmong American gymnast would have requested this peculiar entourage to accompany her. 

Neither Jesus nor Sunisa fit the mold of power, but Sunisa’s entourage did fit this mold. What is revealed about the cultural, political, or moral imaginations of the Hmong American community when our celebration of an Olympic gold medalist includes these figures of power? 

The two hosts for the celebration were both Hmong American news anchors: Laura Lee from ABC 6 News in Rochester, MN and Chenue Her from Good Morning Iowa. The hosts invited Sunisa and her family to take their seats in front of the audience near a large screen. The audience watched as a video highlighting Sunisa’s Olympic performances began to play while she and her family sat nearby. The crowd cheered intermittently as the video played. Other tables near the front were reserved for those who had processed earlier with Sunisa: the politicians, military veterans, clan leaders, financial donors, and others. Behind this, the general public seating began. The room was configured to display honor, power, hierarchy, and other forms of symbolism. 

I wondered whether this grandiose configuration functioned to serve Sunisa and her family? Or whether it actually functioned to serve the cultural and political desires of the community? As the people ascribe honor and fame to Sunisa and the Lee family, they in turn impart a sense of renewed cultural identity and narrative for the people. As the people ascribe power and status to the clan leaders, politicians, and military personnel, they in turn impart a sense of security and belonging in America. To whom was this display of grandeur for? For Sunisa and her family, or for the Hmong community? 

Shortly afterwards, a middle-aged shaman initiated a soul calling and string tying ritual. Elements of this ritual have been adopted from Lao Baci ceremonies. Traditional Hmong shamanism holds that each person is born with multiple souls. When one of the souls wanders or becomes lost, the person can experience a variety of ailments including physical, spiritual, emotional, mental or all the above. Thus the shaman must perform a “hu plig.” The shaman could be heard chanting into a microphone for her soul to return. From where I sat, he looked to be throwing a pair of split bull horns (a common Hmong shaman instrument) on the ground as a way of indicating the return of her soul. This was a way of ensuring Sunisa’s success in future endeavors–including the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. The “hu plig” ritual took place in front of the hundreds gathered.

After the shamanic ritual indicates that her soul has returned, in typically smaller settings, individuals would tie a small piece of string around Sunisa’s wrist while speaking words of blessing. By this segment, the array of leaders and ceremonies had conjoined the religious, cultural, and political into this one celebration. With hundreds in attendance, the shaman had an assistant carry a single piece of yarn (completely intact) to surround Sunisa and the Lee family, the various leaders, and everyone seated in the audience. My family stepped away during this part of the ritual as participation is not something we’ve yet settled on as a family. My speculation is that after the single piece of yarn made its way around the entire audience, the shaman spoke words of blessing over Sunisa and the community. It was the largest soul calling and string tying ritual I had ever seen initiated. 

For some Hmong Americans, this medley of processions with politicians, configurations of hierarchy and honor, and shamanic rituals posed no inner tension for the stated purpose of the event. That purpose statement read: “To celebrate the success of Sunisa Lee as a Hmong individual; allowing her accomplishments to become a foundation to promote and inspire Hmong individuals all over the world and uniting our community through the preservation of our heritage and rich traditions.” This is, in part, due to how one defines “heritage,” “tradition”, or “culture” against “religion.” As a Hmong American Christian, I have often heard from Hmong shamanists: “you have to differentiate between ‘religion’ and ‘culture.’ You can go to church and religiously believe in Jesus; but you must not abandon your Hmong culture of soul calling and string tying ceremonies.” But the inconsistency lies within the statement; the soul calling ritual is the religious component now manifesting and perceived as “cultural.” 

The process of reconstructing Hmong American religious, cultural, and political identity can further be understood when refracted through U.S. military and economic interests in Southeast Asia. The American CIA’s recruitment of the Hmong in Laos for guerilla warfare during the Vietnam War is causal to Hmong refugee resettlement in America (and other parts of the globe). The Hmong in America must now interpret their identities and history in the context of American popular culture, imperialism, capitalism, racialization, domestic and global politics, and religious pluralism. In this context, Hmong Americans negotiate between the labels “Hmong American” (i.e., ethnic identity), “Asian American” (i.e., racial identity), and “American culture” (i.e., often presumed, although implicitly, as “white” normative cultures) in ways similar (and yet different) to other Asian ethnic groups in America. 

Amidst this social matrix, the tendency to conflate cultural, political, and religious leadership is not entirely wrong (nor is the alternative to demarcate them a simple task). There is some biblical precedent for this. The New Testament uses Greek political terminology such as “Lord” (kurios), “Savior” (sōtēr), “kingdom of God” (basileia tou theou) and “Gospel/Good News” (euangelion) to describe Jesus and the gospel message. Prior to Jesus, such political language was employed for Rome’s emperors and the imperial vision. In this way, the gospel message registers as political, yet non-partisan. The “best” religious leaders will also have political aims that transcend partisan politics. The “best” spiritual leaders will also have material interests for the people. The “best” cultural leaders will also nurture individual identity formation. However, this multidimensional leadership rubric can only be met most ultimately in the person of Jesus. 

As was the case with this particular celebration, it doesn’t require institutionalized religion to weave the religious with the cultural and political. When groups or nations conflate and direct these desires towards a single human person, political establishment, or power structure, it risks devolving to forms of theocracy (or in the case of Christians in America: Christian Nationalism). I wonder if aspects of Sunisa’s role in the Hmong American community function as a kind of receptacle for the religious, cultural, and political? Why is it that Sunisa’s platform as an Olympic gymnast gets co-opted by these figures of power? Hmong Americans (shaman, Christian, or other) would do well to recognize how the porous natures of the religious, cultural, and political are operative in our everyday lives–including when we gather for such a worthwhile event as celebrating our Hmong American sister, Sunisa Lee. 

Der Lor is a Th.M. student at Luther Seminary studying theology/ethics where his current project considers a theology of the cross for those racialized as Asian Americans. He is also one of the pastors at an Evangelical Covenant Church in South Minneapolis, MN. He is husband to Alice and father to Penelope and Judah.

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