“Women Talking is Like a Sweet Candy” – Sister Care in Thailand

By Rhoda Keener and Carolyn Heggen

We first met Memee Yang from Minneapolis in 2012 when she phoned with a request that sounded like a biblical Macedonian call. As president of the US Hmong Mennonite Church of Mission women’s organization, she asked for the Sister Care leadership training seminar to be shared with Hmong women in Thailand.  Eight years later in 2020, Carolyn Heggen, psychotherapist specializing in trauma healing, and Rhoda Keener, Sister Care director for Mennonite Women USA, accompanied Memee to the Khung Klang Mennonite Church, an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai.

Meeme Yang (right) prays for Song Vang at the Thailand Sister Care Seminar held January 20-22, 2020. Photo by Rhoda Keener.

As they taught the Sister Care seminar, Memee interpreted into Hmong for 55 women from 17 churches. Her vision became a reality.

Memee’s passion to provide healing and resources for Hmong women in Asia grew from her childhood as a refugee in Thailand.  Because her family had helped American soldiers during the Vietnam war, they, like thousands of other Hmong, needed to flee local retaliation after the war.  She remembers her 4 younger siblings who died because of that flight; they were given opioids so they wouldn’t cry as they escaped through the jungle, but then when they woke, could not eat because of the effect of the opioids. Memee’s family came to the US as immigrant refugees when she was 8 years old.  She is married to Jonah Yang, a Mennonite pastor, and they have seven children.  Both have studied at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

When asked about challenges or problems of Hmong women in their churches and communities, seminar participants said, “Hmong women are very low in our culture and we have no voice.” “Hmong women are not given permission to share problems with other women or teach.”

After writing or illustrating with drawings their personal life stories on a timeline, women were invited to share with a small group what this process was like for them.  Conversations were animated.  It was difficult to move to the next activity as they were so involved and passionate in their sharing. Responses included, “It’s a blessing to share our pain with each other; it makes us laugh and smile. While we are talking about many sad things, we cry with happiness to be able to talk together.”

It was significant for the women that the seminar was for women only.  One woman said, “I want you to know this is the first time for our Hmong women that we have had a teaching just for women.”

Areerat Banchasawan (left) echoed this theme in a devotional she led on the last morning of the seminar, saying, “When women get together and talk it’s like a sweet candy we get to eat.”  Later she added, “Until I read the Sister Care manual which my husband translated, I had never thought of the idea of God with skin on. That is what we are to each other.”

The Hmong people are a minority ethnic group who have experienced much persecution.  They first lived in southern China and have been pushed out across the southeast Asian peninsula.  Parents arrange for Hmong girls to be married between the ages of 12 and 14. After marriage they move to their husband’s family home and carry heavy workloads.  This cultural practice brings many challenges and limits girls’ opportunities for education.

Memee says, “I grew up in a traditional Hmong family where I was taught that as a Hmong girl, when I got married, I belonged to my husband’s family and not my own. It is so important to me that Sister Care is shared with the Hmong women because the Hmong woman feels so low and Sister Care brings healing.”

She added: “Sister Care gives the Hmong women the opportunity to share their deep feelings and pain with each other. It helps women to understand that each woman needs a faithful and trusted friend to be God with skin on for her.  And Sister Care provides an educational resource to help women understand that they are important to God and created equal with men in God’s eyes, and to know that God has called women to serve in the same way as men.”

In November 2020, Memee, Carolyn, and Rhoda will return to Southeast Asia to share the Sister Care seminar with other groups of Hmong women.

The Sister Care manual was translated into Thai and Hmong by Ponchai Banchasawan, president of the Hmong District 20 church conference.  This conference of 26 Hmong churches gained official membership in Mennonite World Conference in 2018 partnering with Mennonite Mission Network (MMN) for church planting and theological training in the region. Mike Sherrill, Asia Director for MMN, facilitated introductions and communication with Hmong leaders for Sister Care.  Funding for the event was provided by United Service Foundation, Central Plains Mennonite Conference, Emmanuel Mennonite Church, MMN New Ministries grant, and individuals; MCC funded onsite costs for food and lodging.  Thailand is the 20th country where Mennonite Women USA has shared Sister Care. The manual has been translated into 18 languages.

Hmong women shared their hand embroidered traditional clothing with Carolyn Heggen, Memee Yang, and Rhoda Keener for part of the Sister Care seminar.