Over time, we’ve developed a way of communicating that works. I’m talking about the interactions between the Montagnard communities at First Christian Church and the church members who were here before those groups came to us. We get invited to gatherings, to the birthday celebrations, to the wedding feasts, to the special events of life and we pray, eat, listen, and learn. We have worshiped together and sung hymns in different languages to tunes we all know and been surprised by God in the process. When we were first blessed with all these refugees coming to our church, the leaders of First Christian Church were worried about missteps. We were worried about insulting our newest community by saying something off, or by a gesture or a word that was misunderstood. We explained that we were worried about offending them or hurting feelings. They shrugged off our concerns at that time. And Nglol Rahlan, one of the leaders from the Jrai speaking community, eventually came back to me with the words, “Same-Same.” He uses the phrase when we’re talking about daily life. That the kids only will eat pizza, or the various traditions that happen around Christmas or Easter, or how tired we all are at the end of a day, he has called attention to our similarities as people. “Same-Same,” he says. “American-Montagnard, Same-Same!”
A few years ago, a group from the Bunong community (who first came to us with that group of Montagnard refugees) had Nancy Carol Stahl and I sit and learn about the work they were doing with the United Nations. They were trying to have their people recognized by the UN, as a unique indigenous group from within Vietnam and Cambodia and other surrounding areas. This got them more involved with other indigenous groups from countries that had similar stories: The indigenous group, distinct from the settlers into a country, has a difficult relationship with the government those settlers eventually erect. As we have seen with the Montagnard and Bunong groups in Vietnam, there are broken promises and treaties and covenants, there are land-grabs, there is persecution, there are violent responses to protests. Learning about our own American history with the indigenous tribes that lived here first, members of our Bunong community asked me point blank what I thought about how they were treated. It seemed to me that the question behind the question was, “Would this group of white Christians (we have trusted so far) do to powerless indigenous people in their country what the Vietnamese Government has done to us?” Or, put more simply, “Can we trust you to do the right thing, when your people have clearly done the wrong thing?” At the time, we talked about our disdain for the way the First Nations people in this country were treated. I’m sure, whoever you are, you agree with me. Reservations have not been a good enough solution for people needing to build a life. Casinos have not helped to knit the various tribes and their histories together. And yet, here we are, still existing in an untenable status quo as if it were admirable.
This week, I cannot hear about the Native American protests of the Dakota Pipeline without thinking about those questions put to me a few years ago. For more on this, please see the article here. A video was circulating on social media of security dogs being unleashed on the protesters. I am reminded of the eight years of listening to stories of Montagnard land repurposed and sold to corporations, of young men going out to farm the community farming land (and a major source of food and livelihood for those communities) that was suddenly taken over by one company or another, of protests turning into life arrests and sudden death, of a complete and utter disregard for people that had become inconvenient. I’m sure there are all kinds of explanations as to why sacred native burial grounds were bulldozed. I’m sure there are all kinds of logical reasons why this pipeline will be allowed to jeopardize the drinking water of our First Nations people. I’m certain that, given how things in this country play out when money is involved, some of those reasons have to do with more powerful people than the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who objected to the pipeline going through their waterways and communities.
True, I am not in the Dakotas. I don’t know the back story of this pipeline. I don’t have millions upon millions of dollars invested in the outcome of this project. I am not experiencing this standoff first hand. That may be reason enough to avoid the subject and mind my own business.
The only hitch is that I’m here, in North Carolina, in a church community that has enlightened me just enough to say, “Same-Same.”