Catholics of color describe challenges they face in church lacking diversity

Born in Laos, Khou Thor moved with her family to France when she was 5. She came to Green Bay to attend college and has lived here since. Khou and her family are members of St. John the Baptist Parish in Howard and also attend the Hmong Mass at St. Jude Parish in Green Bay.


Khou Thor (Samantha Davis | Daveau Images)

When I started teaching at De Pere High School, we took some students to Toys for Tots to help with the event. Even though I was standing right by my students, the people working there (of course white) asked “Who’s your teacher, where’s your teacher?” At that moment I felt invisible. They only saw what they wanted to see: me, another Hmong woman there to get toys and clothes for her kids. Who knows, maybe they couldn’t see me because I’m short or maybe there were just a lot of other Hmong people there. It might look small, but it left a scar on me. Whenever I think about this it saddens my heart and brings tears to my eyes.

Of the two churches my family and I regularly attend, I don’t personally feel discriminated at either one of them. But when I go to the Hmong Mass at St. Jude, I feel like I belong. I can contribute more by helping with the readings or singing. I don’t have to pretend to be someone I am not. When I go to St. John the Baptist, I don’t always feel as welcome. I think if you ask some Caucasian people, they will tell you that they don’t always feel welcome either. Within the church, this seems to be a struggle to welcome people we don’t know, no matter where you go and what nationality you are. Not feeling welcome is something we all have to work on.

Oftentimes I think because the Hmong Catholic community has become smaller over the years, and we have a shortage of priests, it would be a good idea to integrate. We cannot practice our faith in isolation anymore! My dream would be for us to blend and become one in Christ. But there’s still people who are reluctant. I think they are afraid that they will have to give up some of our traditions. At times, it feels like it’s always our job to change, to adapt, to integrate and to fit in if we want to be accepted! It’s never the dominant culture saying, we’ll do it like you. I would love it if occasionally, they would adapt to us, even just a little bit.

Fr. Bob Rhyner is trying very hard to remember our Hmong names and speak our language. When a person does take the time to acknowledge our culture and our language, it means so much to us. As Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. But if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” That is so true. So, I think if we incorporate the Hmong language or any other language into an English Mass, everyone would feel more welcome. In the English Mass books, there are many songs that have Spanish lyrics. Why don’t we ever sing those songs in Spanish at the English Mass? Why don’t we sing them in Hmong, too?

If I wanted to build a church where everyone felt welcome, I would like to see the people working there be people of many colors. Let’s look at all the people and invite them to bring some of their songs, their language, share their food and have a truly multicultural church. Let’s have more than just hamburgers and hot dogs at our church picnics. Let’s add sweet, fried and saffron rice. Let’s add churros and egg rolls! That would be my ideal dream.


‘Open Wide Our Hearts’ series
Peter Weiss | Special to The Compass

This photo and narrative are part of a special Compass series in conjunction with the “Open Wide Our Hearts” photo exhibit, which launched in the Diocese of Green Bay in November 2019. Inspired by the 2018 pastoral letter against racism from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the photo exhibit was created to give viewers an opportunity to learn from the experiences of people of color in our Catholic communities here in the Diocese of Green Bay.

The exhibit features photos of Catholics from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, alongside written narratives that document what life in the church has been like for them as a person of color.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, public exhibitions of Open Wide Our Hearts have been put on hold. In the meantime, we decided to share some of the photos and narratives in The Compass as a way to reach more people with these important stories, especially in light of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the widespread efforts to bring racial healing and reconciliation to our country.

If you are interested in learning more about the Open Wide Our Hearts photo exhibit, visit gbdioc.org/openwideourhearts. There you will find information about the exhibit, as well as how you can request to host the exhibit in your parish or school.

In addition, we hope to soon launch the full series of photos and narratives online, so stay tuned for more information.