Brief Reviews

Melissa May Borja – Follow the New Way [Review]

Follow the New WayOne Foot in Each Boat

A Review of

Follow the New Way: American Refugee Resettlement Policy and Hmong Religious Change
Melissa May Borja

Hardcover: Harvard University Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Josh Livingston

I’ll begin with a disclaimer. Melissa Borja is a friend, colleague, and fellow Hoosier transplant. I deeply respect her scholarship and I am privileged to call her a partner in the civic engagement and justice coalition work that she participates in locally. So let it be said from the outset that this will not be a traditional book review which imagines some sort of objective take on the literature. Nor will it be mere propaganda that props up any potential political ramifications of Borja’s arguments here. Rather, in the spirit of the book itself, I will attempt to navigate and inhabit a third way, a New Way, a space between. 

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this book is the way that Borja writes in a way that inhabits the same space that she intends to elucidate for her readers. That is, in a world where scholarship can become another platform for ideological echo chambers, Borja resists this temptation, admirably demonstrating the grace, patience, and curiosity of research done in a relational key. Rather than fall into the easy traps of targeting imperialistic American refugee resettlement policy or the colonialistic imaginaries of American Christianity, she is able to seamlessly fold these historical realities into the complexity of narrating an obscure, transnational people group who have suffered immensely on many fronts, while simply allowing the stories, and their underlying implications, speak for themselves. In other words, instead of pandering to the right or to the left, Borja has written a third way, A New Way, a space between.

There are many dichotomies to navigate throughout this book: East vs. West, public vs. private, Christianity vs. Hmong, American vs. Hmong, religion vs. spirituality, religion vs. culture, religion vs. secular, seen vs. unseen, true vs. false, etc., etc. In many ways, the title of the book functions as a cliffhanger. Where is Melissa going to land here? With the cross on the cover and the (seeming) embrace of American Christianity as kev cai tshiab, or “the new way,” will this simply be an apology (in both senses of that word) for Christianity?

Borja’s overall objective is that, despite the good intentions of the U.S. government to extend their arms by outsourcing resettlement work to Christian churches and resettlement agencies, and despite the good intentions of these Christians to help Hmong people acclimate (and assimilate) on American soil, it is absolutely necessary “to illuminate one important and overlooked force in the story of Hmong people’s religious and refugee migration: the U.S. government [itself], which produced profound transformation in the spiritual and religious lives of Hmong Americans” (282, italics mine). The tipping of the first domino that began the Hmong narrative of forced migration is

“the U.S. backed war in Laos, which uprooted Hmong people from their homes, disrupted their ritual lives, and put them in close contact with Christian aid workers and missionaries … American refugee policies deprived Hmong people of the family, resources, and ritual experts necessary for the practice of their traditions. Hmong refugees thus found themselves in a ritual crisis, uncertain about the future of the Hmong way” (282).

The irony is, all the while, resettlement policy in America has purported to uphold religious freedom for all. Borja “tells the story of how the refugee policies of the U.S. government unwittingly transformed the religious lives of Hmong people, despite the fact that the resettlement program appeared to affirm religious diversity and was administered by people who cherished commitments to religious freedom and pluralism” (5).

Two thousand years prior, Jesus summed up the religious imaginary entangled with nationalistic interest from the cross: “They know not what they do.”

Borja narrates how Hmong spirituality is barely legible as religion in the modern sense—that is, the religious sense currently undergoing a slow and painful death. As such, might Hmong spirituality, while functioning as an anachronism, be helpful for leading us into what some might call the “postsecular?” The assumptions of a world populated by spirits of ancestors, elders, etc. are not only strange criteria for adapting to a secularized society, they are part and parcel of a world that is being culturally repressed, and displaced into turbulent waters, as it were. If modern religion, the category itself, is a westernized construct, how does one exist in a space that simply isn’t designed for them? Or, to put a positive spin on it, how might Hmong Americans open up their imagination for a Bonhoeffer-like religion without religion? Upon arrival on American soil, the Hmong didn’t even have a word for “religion.” 

In the modern, secular age, where spirituality is disavowed and religious expression is just one way to identify oneself among a plethora of others, by necessity religion has been reduced to a private, highly individualized matter. In this context, for instance, we find congregations who sponsored Hmong refugees make “efforts to separate religion from resettlement work” altogether, while others “took a more interventionist approach to accommodation and made efforts to ensure that refugees could maintain their religious traditions” (158). Regardless, the privatization of religion introduced a cultural cut, a chasm, and a corresponding sense of loss; an occasion for religious desire to become aroused. The secularity of resettlement work is the result of a particularly Western, modern, dualistic mindset that simply did not exist for many of the peoples being resettled, perhaps chief of which are the Hmong, whose spirituality could scarcely be so casually categorized as a religion, much less a commodified one.

All of this opens up the possibility for the absurdities like the one described, where in 1975, a Catholic archdiocese “invited 700 Southeast Asian refugees to a Christmas party involving carol singing, Kris Kringle, and a traditional turkey dinner,” with the express goal “to show them how we do things and make them a part of it” (159). Therein, “the parishioners at Saint Odilia Catholic Church “tried to explain the meaning of Christmas to the Vietnamese Buddhist family they had resettled” (159). Christmas as a secularized cultural event becomes a convenient, if harmless, attempt to subliminally convey the gospel of consumer capitalist American religion, all the while lulling Christians into a self-satisfied sense of evangelistic accomplishment.

Again, throughout the book Borja graciously underscores this point by her remarkably even-handed scholarship. My point here is not that Western Christians ought to be demonized for doing all the Orientalist things they had no idea they were actually doing. Rather, it is to shine a light on the fact that this mode of opportunistic unknowing is precisely the danger that Jesus encountered when he was nailed to a cross. And indeed, as Christians, we have demonstrated in Christ the truly righteous response: “Father, forgive them.”

Borja says, “The loss of traditional rituals and traditional spirits signaled something even more ominous: the loss of Hmong culture and identity altogether” (200). All of this points to the ways that the fragmentation of Western culture (or anti-culture as social theorist Philip Rieff would have it) is rapidly losing its ability to function as a society.

It strikes me how this quandary is profoundly geographical. Not only are the Hmong people, on the surface of things, having to teeter between worlds east and west, or as a Hmong man named Yong Kay Moua put it: “one foot on each different boat,” secularization has also cut off imagination for spiritual geographies. That is, part of the story of Hmong disorientation and displacement is the loss of an entire (unseen) realm of (spiritual) beings. Whether we can account for this realm by our rationalized Western minds, again, is beside the point. The point is, the loss of this realm for the Hmong amounts to the loss of history, community, self, memory, safety, security, and cultural identity. For Hmong people, geography itself extends into the space of eternity and the afterlife (195-196).

So, what then is “the New Way,” according to my friend Melissa? I’m looking forward to asking her myself. In reading her book, I can gather that it is not simply conversion to American Christianity. Concepts like “conversion,” entangled as they are to normative Western constitutions of “religion,” are highly complicated, if not incomprehensible. Nor is it the Hmong’s long held hopes of maintaining their cultural traditions and spiritual practices, for this has not been logistically, and in many cases, spatially, possible. Perhaps instead, the New Way lies in what Borja calls the Hmong peoples’ “genius for adaptation” and their uncanny ability for the additive (on this front, see Robert Chao Romero and Jeff Liou’s excellent book on cultural and community wealth of colonized peoples).

“Hmong Americans have made good use of the flexible categories of religion and culture and the fluid boundaries of their traditions. This approach was one that developed over time … These complex maneuverings are perhaps not surprising, given the genius for adaptation required of a people who have a history of being on the move. Even in death, their souls must travel” (279).

In our rapidly changing world where all of our time-honored categories of religion, culture, and spirituality, and all of the ways that they are symbolized, are crumbling, we need new witnesses. We need new experiences. We need new perspectives. The Hmong people, and their “flexible citizenship” ( 20) demonstrate the wisdom of leveraging secularity for their own wellbeing. Having to distinguish between Western categories of culture and religion has, on the one hand, allowed them to acclimate their culture via compatibility with the normativity of Christian faith, while on the other identifying as a religion has secured for them all the niceties of “religious freedom” that America privileges. This posture of societal subversion can be a rare gift to us American Christians, increasingly finding ourselves in minoritized spaces, in that they can teach us kev cai tshiab, that is, a third way, A New Way, a space between. 

Joshua E. Livingston

Joshua E. Livingston is a writer and community developer currently residing in Indianapolis. He is the director of Cultivating Communities and the author of Sunrays on the Beachhead of the New Creation (Wipf & Stock, 2021).

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