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The Lahu Ministry & Christ Lutheran Church of Visalia, CA

The town of Visalia, California, nestled in the San Joaquin Valley and just miles from the historic giant Sequoia trees, holds one of the largest diaspora of Lahu people in the western United States.


The Lahu people hold their origin in China as one of over 50 ethnic groups recognized by the Chinese Government. During the Vietnam war, many Lahu people fled to Southeast Asia and here, fought alongside United States soldiers. When the Vietnam war ended, the Lahu people quickly became targets and sought refugee status, fleeing primarily to Thailand. While many Lahu folk remained in immigration camps in Thailand, a large group fled to the United States and through sponsors, landed in Visalia, California. Visalia is now home to the largest concentration of Lahu people in the United States. There are currently seven Lahu speaking congregations just in Visalia.

Christ Lutheran Church in Visalia, CA first welcomed a group of Lahu people to their congregation back in the mid 1990s. This relationship with the Lahu community began rather organically, as the tribe, led by the Elder, first began attending the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation in town. Following a disagreement with the congregation, the Elder began attending Christ Lutheran, the local ELCA congregation in town, and was quickly followed by other members of the tribe.


At the time, assimilation began to occur between the Lahu people and the English-speaking members of Christ Lutheran. There were not any designated services for the Lahu people, leaders who spoke their language, or other elements of worship that felt familiar to their native land. Folk at Christ Lutheran expected that these new worshippers would become a part of the church community as it currently was. The Lahu people were very committed to attending worship services at Christ Lutheran, despite not speaking English, but eventually the Elder of the tribe decided to leave for another congregation. As in the Lahu culture, tribe members followed the Elder and the Lahu community left Christ Lutheran.


It was in the early 2000s that a new group of Lahu people began attending Christ Lutheran, and this time, head Pastor Brian Malison was determined to go about their welcoming efforts differently.


Pastor Malison recalls their welcoming efforts, sharing, “This time, we need you to identify a leader, someone who will be responsible for leading Lahu worship and Lahu ministry. We’re not going to expect Lahu to assimilate into all of our ministries and programs. We’re happy to provide a place for you to be, a time for you to worship, resources for you to worship with, office space, etc. But, we’re not going to assimilate.”


It was in this moment where Samee Singkeovilay was identified as the group leader. The Lahu community established this new partnership with Christ Lutheran Church in 2006, with Samee serving as the leader of the Lahu group.


“It’s the community that lifted up Samee and said ‘We think you can be our Pastor.’ I think that’s an extremely Lutheran approach to a call to ministry,” shared Pastor Malison.


Christ Lutheran quickly witnessed Samee’s gifts for ministry and sought to support him with formal Seminary education. Pastor Malison and Samee drove north to visit Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) to inquire about Samee joining the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) program. Samee entered seminary in 2011, driving north to PLTS for classes quarterly and balancing full time work, full time parenting, and being a student.


Samee graduated Seminary in 2018 and was ordained as the Pastor of Lahu Ministries at Christ Lutheran Church in Visalia, officially becoming Pastor Samee Singkeovilay in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).


When asked about Pastor Singkeovilay, Pastor Malison shared, “You need to know, Samee is an incredibly gifted individual. He has the ability to speak multiple Southeast Asian languages, so he floats in and among others very naturally. He’s an incredible speaker, people pay attention, and his style is so natural.”


Following Pastor Singkeovilay’s ordination, the intentional partnership with the Lahu community and Christ Lutheran Church has grown deeper. The Lahu people’s sense of community is incredibly strong, with few divisional lines there is an abundance of community support. The community is quick to help one another, Lahu people reach out to their community members first before seeking government or social services support, and the community is continually eager to help and support each other. There is a deep understanding of connectivity, of shared experience, and of mutual support.


“The Lahu people love the church, they love to serve and learn from other cultures. For me, I’ve learned a lot since my ordination, especially from the Christ Lutheran Church staff. Something I share with our Lahu members is to love your neighbor as yourself, just as Jesus did,” shared Pastor Singkeovilay.

Since being ordained in 2018, Pastor Singkeovilay has had his fair share of unexpected celebratory moments and hardships, especially amidst the pandemic. When the congregation shut down and began worshipping online, Christ Lutheran developed a worship team that was equipped to develop digital services in English. However, they were not equipped to develop a digital service for their Lahu speaking congregants. Thus, Pastor Singkeovilay took the responsibility himself every Saturday to record an entire worship service for the Lahu people of the church.


Pastor Singkeovilay is also finding new ways to connect with the Lahu community, despite current pandemic limitations.


“Right now, we are doing an online devotion led by my wife. We also host a Facebook live during worship so those who cannot join in person can watch online. I also call our Lahu members weekly to check-in on how they are and what they need, as well as visiting people who are sick and praying with them,” shared Pastor Singkeovilay.


So what’s coming up for Christ Lutheran Church and their Lahu community? This fall, the congregation is putting together a New Member Class as they have congregants interested in becoming members of the church. Additionally, Pastor Singkeovilay was recently approached by a congregant looking to be baptized! Joyful and spirit-filled celebratory moments amidst these unsettling times.


The Lahu community is well-known at Christ Lutheran for their incredible celebrations held during the holiday season. The Lahu people especially love celebrating Thanksgiving, they typically gather at church for a short service and then hold a large meal for all. Additionally, the 5 day celebration of New Years is a crowd favorite at Christ Lutheran!


“From December 28st to January 1st, we hold times of prayer, participate in traditional Lahu dancing, and celebrate with food as we crossover into the new year,” shared Pastor Singkeovilay.


This multiple decade long partnership between Christ Lutheran Church and the Lahu community of Visalia is rooted in deep admiration, respect and celebration of the neighbor.


“The future is something that is unknown and depends on where God leads us to go, but my focus will continue to be on the Lahu community and bringing new people into the church. Let these people know that our church is open to the Lahu community in Visalia,” said Pastor Singkeovilay.


If you find yourself in Visalia, California, we encourage you to check out Christ Lutheran and join them for Sunday morning worship. You can learn more about their congregation at https://www.clcvisalia.org or like them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/clcvisalia.

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