Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reaching “the nations” November 21, 2011

I STILL REMEMBER the derogatory label, even after all these years. “Gooks,” he called them. I lashed back, defending the Asian families who fled their war torn countries to start new lives in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Didn’t your great grandparents immigrate here?” I asked, trying to control my emotions as I confronted the Faribault man who spit out the venomous word. But I knew, even as I spoke, that I could not quell his hatred.

Now, nearly 30 years later, I hear similar disparaging terms directed toward Somalis and Sudanese and, yes, Hispanics, too.

Don’t we ever learn?

These thoughts, of anything I could have considered, passed through my mind yesterday afternoon as I photographed Hmong families participating in a “Let the People Praise!” mission event at my Faribault church, Trinity Lutheran.

Deacon Johnny Vang of New Life Lutheran Church, Robbinsdale, with his wife Tina and children, Leviticus, 10, Cecilia, 7, and Christian, 4.

I could forgive the man who nearly three decades prior had spoken with such ignorance. But I could not forget.

The organizers and participants in Sunday’s mission gathering wouldn’t expect my thoughts to wander back to that previous unwelcoming American attitude toward Southeast Asians. But I am honest and this post would not be mine if I ignored that unsettling flashback.

With that historic frame of reference, I could only admire the faith and fortitude of the men and women who stood before me in the sanctuary singing in the Hmong choir, speaking of their mission outreach to Southeast Asia and in Minnesota, specifically in Robbinsdale and the east side of St. Paul.

Members of the Hmong choir wore colorful, ethnic costumes.

The congregation, including individuals from the Hmong community, sang at Sunday's mission celebration.

Churches initially embraced Cambodian and Laotian refugees in the years following the divisive and turbulent Vietnam War. I remember, during my first newspaper reporting job out of college in 1978, writing about a Southeast Asian family resettling to the small Minnesota town of Gaylord. I don’t recall details now, but the compassionate sponsorship of this family by a local church made an impression on me.

That care and love triumph over the hateful words and attitudes of the past.

It pleased me to listen to those involved in the Hmong Lutheran Ministry speak of mission trips to the Communist countries of Laos and Vietnam and to Cambodia and Thailand. The “Communist” part certainly doesn’t please me, but the Christian outreach does.

“They are hungry for the gospel and they want to be saved,” a Hmong deacon told us.

My favorite photo of the day shows the Vang children, Leviticus, Cecilia and Christian on the floor in the narthex, the church doors into the sanctuary flung wide open. This symbolizes to me the doors that are being opened to Christianity through mission work here in Minnesota and in Southeast Asia.

Later the Rev. David Seabaugh of Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Paul, home to a Liberian ministry, used nearly the same words: “The Liberian people are hungry for the gospel.”

I considered then how complacent I’ve sometimes become in my Christian faith, even in my free access to the bible, and in my personal outreach.

I needed to hear this Scripture from I Chronicles 16: 24:

Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.

God doesn’t care if we’re black or white or yellow, or even Lutheran for that matter, or where we live. He considers us “the nations.”

Today, just like 100 years ago when the Germans and Italians and Swedes and Norwegians and so many others immigrated to America, “the nations” are still arriving on our doorstep.

Are you welcoming them?

A sombrero rests in the side aisle prior to a musical performance by Hispanic children from the Le Sueur and Henderson areas.

Members of the Hispanic children's choir perform.

A representative of the Sudanese ministry spoke at the mission gathering. "Before, we suffer a lot," he said, calling it "God' s plan" that the Sudanese came to America and to Minnesota.

A musical performance by the Sudanese.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


We’re not hyphenated Americans… September 12, 2011

Xafsa, age 5

THEY ARE THE FACES, the hands, the feet, the voices of a new Faribault. Not the community of only French or Germans, Scandinavians or whatever ethnic groups shaped and defined this southeastern Minnesota city for so many years.

Today the face of Faribault is changing with one-fifth of the population identifying itself as non-white in the 2010 U.S. Census. Most of those minorities are Latinos and Somalis, “drawn by the opportunity to live in a small town and work in food processing plants, especially meat-packing plants,” according to a recent research report, “After the Welcome Center: Renewing Conversations about Immigration and Diversity in Faribault,” conducted by students and staff with the St. Olaf College Political Science Department. To read that report, follow this link:


I can’t possibly attempt to summarize the contents of that report here. But it is packed with information that should be a must-read for every member of my community. We can all learn a thing or two or ten or 20 from this research project.

But mostly we can learn from meeting our neighbors at events like the International Festival held Saturday in Faribault’s Central Park. I’ve attended this meld of ethnic cultures several times already and each time enjoyed interacting with my neighbors whose skin color differs from my own.

That all sounds nice, politically-correct, and exactly what you’d expect me to write in a public venue like this blog. But I am sincere in my appreciation to the volunteer organizers of the International Festival and to those who participate. We just need more Caucasians to attend.

Several Latinos lead in singing of Mexico's national anthem on the band shell stage.

From the food and merchandise vendors to the musicians and everyone in between, I had ample opportunity to educate myself about Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Somalia, Holland and Norway. My husband and I sampled ethnic foods from five vendors.

We sampled pupusas right off the griddle.

My husband and I tried Guatemalan chuchitos-- chicken, corn and salsa wrapped in a corn husk.

Faribault resident and one of the organizers, Peter van Sluis a Dutch citizen who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, says the festival offers “a chance to mingle with different cultures.”

For me that mingling was most evident when children gathered under shade trees just south of the Central Park band shell to break piñatas. It didn’t matter if their skin was the beautiful color of sun-baked clay, or a nearly-black deep brown, or pale white. They were all kids, just kids, waiting to whack that swaying treasure-trove apart and then scramble for candy.

After the pinata was broken, the kids shared the candy.

While waiting for the piñata busting, I made a point of scanning the adult faces. I saw smiles—smiles nearly as wide as the brimmed hat worn by the man donning an El Salvador T-shirt. That’s an exaggeration, but you get my point. Viewing kids having fun has no color barriers.

Riyaam, 16

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention my chat with Owatonna High School student Riyaam, a stunning Somali teen who was peddling shoes, skirts and other merchandise at a table. Well-spoken and seemingly mature beyond her 16 years, Riyaam and I talked about clashes between whites and Somalis at OHS which she says has led to a new policy of basically, “you fight, you’re out.”

She told me how the angry voice of a single white student, who declared, “Somalis don’t belong here,” triggered those racial tensions.

As she spoke, her voice became more agitated, edged with emotion. I wanted to reach across the table and hug her and I wish now that I had.

But I didn’t and it is too late for that now, but not too late to encourage Faribault residents to make the effort to meet the Somalis, the Sudanese, the Latinos and other immigrants who now live among us. It is easy to dismiss and stereotype an ethnic group if you’ve never made the effort to personally meet them individually.

A member of the Faribault-based band Circles and Squares, of which two members performed at Saturday’s International Festival, nicely summarized, I thought, the goal of the gathering: “Remember, we’re not hyphenated Americans. We’re friends.”

Well, said.

National flag ribbons were tied to trees in Central Park during the celebration.

Vendors peddled their wares at the festival.

Shoes from Somalia on display at Riyaam's table.

A woman from El Salvador cooked at her food both.

Sanji, 18 months, plays with toys in the kids' activity area of the fest.

Hoop maker, performer and teacher Adrienne Lee teaches a Girl Scout the art of hoop dancing. The Girl Scouts were among the non-profit groups with booths at the festival.

A young girl's henna stained foot.

Colorful skirts for sale at Riyaam's booth.

THE ST. OLAF RESEARCH, which included interviews with 39 Faribault community members, states: “Most interviewees agree that Faribault’s immigrant and native-born communities operate alongside each other; coexisting peacefully, but not acting as a single integrated community.”


The report continues: “They do not agree about what should be done to unite these groups.

“We found Faribault leaders thus enmeshed in the long-standing American debate about which people ought to change and how much.”

A colorful, detailed wall hanging/blanket represented El Salvador at one booth.

FYI: International Festival, Faribault, a recently-formed non-profit, has set its number one goal “to promote understanding of different cultures by organizing an annual event,” says Peter van Sluis. Secondly, the group wants to raise money and assist other non-profits.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Words matter: Prejudice and acceptance in Faribault July 14, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:42 AM
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Faribault is home to a sizable Hispanic population. This file photo was taken at a downtown Faribault Mexican bakery, which has since come under new ownership. The bakery was once at the center of a controversy over its exterior color and was repainted when some local businessmen donated money for a new paint job.

EVERY TIME I HEAR a derogatory comment about an ethnic group, I am still surprised. I don’t know why.

Perhaps the fact that this is 2011, and not 1960, factors into my belief that people have overcome their prejudices toward those with skin colors different than their own.

Then I hear a statement like this: “Willow Street is becoming a little fill in a Spanish word here.” I hadn’t heard the word before, which is why I can’t remember it. But I know for certain that it was unkind and derogatory and cutting toward the Hispanic population that lives in my community of Faribault, specifically along my street.

I couldn’t allow the slam to go unchallenged, especially since it was spoken just as I was about to enter, of all places, my church for Sunday morning worship.

In an immediate moment of incredible self control, I responded by telling this clearly prejudiced individual that there are “good whites” and “bad whites,” just like there are “good Hispanics” and “bad Hispanics.” I knew I had to keep my response simple so he would understand. I also told him that my Hispanic neighbors are “good neighbors.”

With those words tumbling off my tongue, I walked into the sanctuary, attempting to dismiss my anger and focus on an attitude of forgiveness.

I also consciously shifted my thoughts to an exchange I witnessed a day earlier. As a Somali mother walked into a Faribault grocery store with her adorable preschool-aged daughter, a Caucasian couple engaged the woman in conversation. They inquired about the little girl and asked her name.

“Amira,” the Somali mother answered and smiled.

“That means ‘princess,’” the man said and continued to share a story about another Amira he knew. All the while, the mother beamed. When they parted, he told the pair, “God bless you.”

I was trailing behind, thinking how my Aunt Dorothy has always called me her “Little Princess,” even now, today, when I am in my 50s. That endearing nickname has always made me feel so loved. Words can make such an impact.

As the Somali woman continued down the grocery store aisle with her daughter tagging behind, I blurted, “She’s so cute.”

The mother of the little princess turned and rewarded me with a smile, a universal human expression that bonds all humans no matter their skin color.

In this file photo, a Somali family waits to cross a downtown Faribault street.

CLICK HERE TO READ one of many posts I wrote related to the exterior colors of two ethnic restaurants in downtown Faribault. The color of the Mexican bakery, which has since changed hands, generated heated discussion within the community in 2009 and 2010.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling