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Hmong Baptist leader dies shortly after being diagnosed with cancer

ST. PAUL, Minn. (BP) – A month after he led the 2023 annual meeting of the Hmong Baptist National Association, Executive Director Wa Tra Xiong, 53, died suddenly from a virulent cancer and complications from the procedure to remove it.

Xiong’s sudden illness and death was a surprise even to his family, said Kuoa Vang, Xiong’s son-in-law. But before Xiong died, “He said his work was done and that for his pastor friends who are staying behind to work hard and continue serving the Lord.”

From a young age, Xiong lived as though he didn’t have much time, and at the same time was loving, patient and humble, according to several people.

“He was a model of Christlikeness and humility,” Na Herr told Baptist Press. Herr is intercultural strategist for the Minnesota-Wisconsin Southern Baptist Convention. “He treated everyone kindly, and always put others before himself. He served the Lord faithfully and always had a smile on his face.”

Xiong was 6 when he fled war-torn Laos with his farming family for a refugee camp in Thailand. Six years later he moved to a second refugee camp for testing and processing for entry into the United States. There he met and married his wife, Mee. The first of their 12 children – six boys, six girls – was born in that camp.

Sponsored by his older brother, the young Xiong family moved in 1984 to Fresno, Calif., where his brother took him to First Hmong Baptist Church of Fresno. Three years later, after hearing a sermon about heaven, 17-year-old Xiong made a profession of faith in Jesus.

At 19, Xiong was sent by the church to start a Hmong church in Sacramento, Calif.

“With each of nine church plants he planted in the U.S., he lived in the area for a year, during which he started churches and developed leaders who would carry forth the ministry, including 10 men who have become pastors,” according to a 2016 Baptist Press article announcing Xiong’s election as the new executive director of the Hmong Baptist National Association.

“He was very instrumental in helping to disciple and grow those churches,” Pao Ly told Baptist Press. Ly, pastor of First Hmong Baptist Church of Morganton, N.C., has known Xiong since the man who would become HBNA executive director first moved to Fresno. “He loved to make relationships with others and wherever his presence was, he never ceased to bring laughter, the fellowship of doing ministry together, and most of all, planting churches and raising new pastoral leadership.”  

Education was important to Xiong: his own and that of other Hmong people so they could lead Hmong churches. He earned undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees online.

“He didn’t go physically because he wanted to serve while he studied,” Vang said after talking with Mrs. Xiong. 

“Dr. Xiong brought in the Advance Program from Gateway Seminary, so that the association would have a resource to grow its next generation of leaders,” HBNA President Pao Thao told Baptist Press.

Leo Endel, executive director of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Southern Baptist Convention, said theological concerns were very important to Xiong.

“One of Dr. Xiong’s greatest accomplishments was his willingness and ability to help the Hmong people work through biblical and theological issues through open discussions based upon serious biblical exegesis,” Endel told Baptist Press. “He knew serious theological questions needed serious biblical answers. He led us all to think through how the Bible transcends culture.”

Xiong continued to remember the Hmong people remaining in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, visiting those nations several times after he became HBNA’s executive director. There he would preach, lead conferences, train and encourage pastors.

“Dr. Xiong expanded the vision of Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptists by demonstrating a sacrificial heart for the people of Southeast Asia, by showing us the cultural diversity of the world, and teaching us to see beyond our limited North American perspective,” Endel said. “He did all this with a gracious spirit and a humble heart.

“He has made us all better,” Endel continued.

Koua Vang spoke with Baptist Press for the family.

“He put God before his family and himself. Even when he was sick, if he was able to, he went. He continued to serve until his body no longer allowed him,” Vang said. “His legacy is that he was always helping everyone. He was humble and always willing to serve and help. He was truly a servant of God.”

Xiong died Oct. 31. A traditional Hmong three-day funeral took place Dec. 9-11 in St. Paul.

The HBNA “executive team is carrying the load of the missing director and as the year is getting underway with the new administration, there will be talk as to what our next step is in fulfilling the Director’s role and responsibility,” Thao said.

“Finding the next director will take time and prayers, so in the meantime, please continue to keep us in your prayers.”

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.