ST. FRANCIS – More than 450 Hmong Catholics from throughout the United States gathered at the Cousins Center June 27-30 for the Hmong American National Catholic Association Convention.

“I want to help the community grow in faith,” said Koua Thao, one of the convention presenters and a member of St. Michael Parish, Milwaukee. “Faith is not just within yourself, faith has to be known and shared with others.”

This year, the 30th year of the annual convention, drew its largest crowd ever.

About 92 of those in attendance represented the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, while 17 were from the Green Bay Diocese.

Thao said he wanted to encourage those in the community to show their faith.

“When you say, ‘I believe in God,’ or ‘We should love each other,’ but how do you show your love? Love is from your mouth, love is from your hand, love is from your heart,” Thao said.

During his presentation Thao encouraged the audience to share positive experiences of how they show their faith.

“Many people don’t come here with an open mind, they come here to lecture people, especially the elderly,” Thao said. “I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing but it’s an attitude thing.”

He said he reminds participants the convention is not “about somebody else, this is about you and your community, how you help your community moving forward.”

Born in Laos, Thao converted to Catholicism when he was 19 after participating in traditional “ancestral worshiping.” He immigrated to the United States in 1977 first to Des Moines, Iowa and then to Milwaukee in 1983.

He was a social worker for more than two decades, but Thao said he needs a change.

“I have been doing social work for the past 23 years and I don’t see that I’m going anywhere,” Thao said of his impact. “It’s a circle. You see the same people every year. No matter what, you can’t make any difference.”

Thao plans to start his own home health care business for elderly and disabled people because he feels he’ll have a greater impact.

The HANCA convention also included a youth program aimed at keeping them engaged with their faith and local parish community.

Selia Yang, a recent UW-Madison graduate with a degree in social welfare, was one of the keynote speakers.

“I loved watching my brother and my cousin serve as altar boys,” said Yang, who grew up near Sheboygan in a Catholic family. “I always wanted to be a server. It was my dream when I became a fifth grader.”

Yet over the years, her interest in her faith waned, she said, describing her faith life as a roller coaster with times when she was strong in her faith and times when she lost faith.  

As a youth, she said she played club soccer and her dad coached. With games on Sundays, they attended Mass on Saturday night or early Sunday morning, she told her audience of about 50 young adults ranging from college age to
elementary students.

But when she went to high school things changed.

“At the end of my sophomore year of high school, at the age of 16, I started going to parties with my friends that involved drinking,” Yang said. “I killed two birds with one stone in a bad way. I broke two commandments. I lied and I dishonored my parents.”

Yang said her parents found out what she was doing before her senior year and forced her to tell the school athletic director. She spent the next year gaining her parents’ trust and when she went to college things changed again.

“Once I built that trust back up again I literally tore it back down like it was nothing,” Yang said. “I was stupid and immature and repeated my bad decisions.”

While at UW-Madison, she attended Mass only the first week.

She became caught up in the partying atmosphere, often partying and drinking on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“Basically, I would drink all night, not go to sleep until 6 a.m., go to sleep, get up and go out again,” Yang said. “So I was too tired to go to church on Sundays.”

But once again, things changed.

“When it came close to the end of my freshman year, I began to feel this emptiness inside,” Yang said.

During her sophomore year two of Yang’s friends died, one in a car accident and another from cancer. Their deaths brought her back to church and she cut back on the partying.

But Yang worked several jobs, one of which required her to occasionally work Sundays.

“I started to feel that emptiness inside again because of all the time I spent at work; I just wasn’t myself anymore,” Yang said.

She advised the young crowd to learn to work with life and faith.

“Balance out your life,” Yang said. “Make sure your prayer is first, especially for Jesus. What you do in life should always be for Jesus … for those who are in college take time, find a church.”

She told her audience questioning faith leads to understanding.

“For those of you who question your faith, go ahead and question it,” Yang said. “If you question it, it helps you understand it better and it strengthens your faith.”