“They’re animists, you know,” my preacher friend said on one of our bike-and-talk-theology rides. “Not even Buddhists. They believe spirits are alive in everything—plants, rivers, rocks, wind, fire, places, people, anything. They don’t have a concept of one God, let alone any idea of the Trinity or what’s going on in the Eucharist.”

 Tyrone was talking about the Hmong refugees he had befriended and invited into our Presbyterian church community—our church suppers, gospel concerts, square dance evenings, and worship services. Every Sunday about twenty women and small children sat silently in two pews near the front, just under the elevated wooden pulpit. They had come to Saint Paul in the late seventies from the hills of Laos, refugees from our war with Vietnam. They were fleeing the landmines we planted in their rice fields and teak forests, the bombs we rained on their villages. They were also running from the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao, communist soldiers who hunted them down as traitors for cooperating with the United States, captured women and children to use as bait, and then slaughtered the husbands, brothers, and fathers who came out of hiding in the jungle to free them. 

They were a tribal people. They arrived in Minnesota without a written language, having lost it long ago to the Qing Dynasty of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE, or the Tang Dynasty of the eighth century CE, or the more ancient Chinese invasions that forced them—according to legend—to eat their books or throw them in the river as they fled. They built three-stone hearths on the floors of their public housing apartments to steam their rice in a basket over an open fire. They prayed to the spirit of their ancestors. They sought the help of shamans to heal the spirits of those who fell ill or lost their way in this strange new land. For them, the world was alive with spirits who were always present, acting for good or for ill, and who needed tending. 

But each Sunday morning, here the Hmong were, present among us, women and children who didn’t speak English, nestled together in the hard oak pews, alert and still, their eyes fixed on Tyrone as he preached. And here they were, once a month, taking Communion with us. Lifting a small square of crustless white bread from the plate offered to them, cradling it in their palms until we had all been served, and eating it in unison with us when Tyrone said, “The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Lifting a tiny cup of grape juice from the clattering tray, holding it solemnly while the rest of us were served, and drinking it in unison with us when we heard, “In the same way he took the cup, saying: This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me. Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord, until he comes.”1

It was a bold move to invite “the unbaptized” to partake of the Lord’s Supper, even for Tyrone, whose way was to challenge the comfortable ways of the church. “Open the doors of the church,” he would call out from the pulpit. And doors and hearts were opened. I loved the welcoming congregation he nurtured. Black, white, rich, poor, old, young, wheelchair-bound, lifelong Presbyterians, agnostics, skeptics—all sat together, all took turns reading Scripture and serving Communion. When someone cried out wordlessly or grunted or let out a loud slow groan during a sermon, no one shushed them. When a woman missing both her forearms lifted the heavy tray of communion cups onto her stubs and walked among the congregation delivering the tray to the person at the end of one pew and stepping to the end of the next pew to receive it and pass it on, no one thought it odd. Everyone belonged. It was the kingdom of God on earth. 

According to the Presbyterian tradition, any baptized person who comes “in faith, repentance, and love” may share in the feast. The official doctrine states that “even one who doubts or whose trust is wavering may come to the Table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Christ Jesus.”2 But my friend had opened wide the doors of the church, inviting to the Lord’s Table not just the unrepentant, not just the unbaptized, not just the lapsed or unchurched or agnostic or atheist, not even Jews or Muslims or other monotheists, not even adherents of a polytheistic religion like Hinduism or devotees of an ancient philosophy like Buddhism. He had welcomed animists, people who inhabited a world teeming with spirits they interacted with daily, a world so unfamiliar to us that we could barely conceive of it, a world we had no language for. 

I passionately believed the sacrament of Communion, as “a visible sign of an invisible grace” (the classic definition, derived from Augustine and often attributed to him), should be welcoming and inclusive.3 In the denomination I was raised in, even baptized members in good standing in their home church had to be examined in their faith by the minister and elders of any sister church they visited if they wanted to take Communion with that congregation. With this requirement the church leaders were protecting the honor of the sacrament and the name of the Lord and also their members from “eat[ing] and drink[ing] damnation” to themselves, for to take Communion in an unrepentant state meant spiritual death (1 Cor. 11:29 KJV). But this gatekeeping seemed to me a travesty of Communion: it turned a ritual of love given and shared into an instrument of exclusion. I judged just as harshly denominations that would not serve Communion to people with intellectual disabilities or dementia because they deemed that such persons could not understand what was happening in the ritual and thus could not eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus Christ. I believed that Communion was an invitation to the love of God through the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ and should not be sullied with No Trespassing signs, should not be enclosed in barbed wire fences, should not require participants to pass through moral or intellectual or doctrinal metal detectors. 

But here my friend was, serving the body and blood of Christ to Hmong refugees, farmers and weavers and fishers who didn’t have a concept of a personal god or gods, or any other way to help them grasp the meaning of the one God in three persons of Christianity and the  sacrificial death of this one God’s Son. Did being inclusive mean that faith communities have no boundaries? No identity that mattered? That religion was a free-for-all—anyone could participate in any ritual of any tradition, regardless of what they believed or where they stood in relation to the community, simply because they showed up? And what did this mean for the doctrine of the sacraments and the church as the body of Christ?

Purity of doctrine wasn’t on Tyrone’s mind. Nor did he seem to be worried that he might be disciplined by the Presbyterian synod. He, like one of his favorite theologians and mystics, Howard Thurman, was in search of a new interpretation of the sacraments, whose practice had united and separated so many. While in seminary, Thurman discovered the pre-Christian origins of Communion: 

To eat the body and drink the blood of the sacred totem of the tribe in special ceremony meant sharing the life and partaking of the essence of the sacred object—in so doing, one became like the object. Thus, one became what one worshipped. This made structural sense of the communion service. As applied to Jesus, it became symbolically an experience of total surrender to or a taking into one’s self of His spirit and His life.4

Based on this understanding, when he founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco in 1944, an interfaith, interracial, intercultural community of seekers, Thurman decided that “in keeping with the spirit of the Master, participation in the service would be open to all who wished to become one with His spirit.” The communion service in his church became, in his words, “a high moment of dedication and commitment.”5

I don’t know if Tyrone had the practice of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in mind when he invited the Hmong to the Lord’s Table. It’s possible that he was inviting people who were familiar with spirits to open themselves to the living spirit of Jesus, that he believed there could be a communion of spirits in love even in the absence of a shared language and understanding. I do know my friend stood firm on the Bible: “Welcome the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19, my paraphrase of KJV). “Think about it,” he said to me once. “If we invite these people into our community and they see us share a meal, without offering them the food or the drink, what can they think? Communion is an act of communing with the spirit of Jesus, the one who identified with the disinherited. It’s sharing the love of Christ—with the widow, the orphan, the refugee.” 

“They’re animists, you know.”

I didn’t know. 

I could conjure up a halfway decent definition of animism based on my graduate school history-of-religions readings in “primitive religions” and indigenous tribal peoples: from anima, Latin for “breath” or “spirit,” animism is the belief that souls or spirits exist not only in human beings but also in certain creatures, places, natural phenomena, objects. In animism there is no separation of the physical and spiritual worlds; it’s a way of living in the one, undivided world. 

I could also boast of having encountered animism in practice—or at least beliefs and practices that sounded or seemed animistic to my untrained ears and eyes. The midwestern seminary where I taught had a longstanding relationship with the Native American Theological Association and welcomed Native American students from tribes in the surrounding region. In class discussions, some of the Ojibwe and Winnebago students insisted that trees were alive, like the four-hundred-year-old Spirit Little Cedar Tree, known to some as the Witch Tree, on the shores of Lake Superior near Duluth, where people still left tobacco offerings. Rocks too were alive, they said, passing us a smooth gray stone they had warmed in their hand. In sweat lodges, Lakota medicine women prayed to Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka, the Great Mystery, and prayed for mitákuye oyás’iŋ, “all my relatives,” invoking the spirit of all forms of life joined as one in the sacred circle, rocks, rivers, mountains, plants, trees, winged ones, four-leggeds, two-leggeds. 

In a healing ceremony at the home of a friend, a Choctaw Presbyterian minister, I sat cross-legged on the floor in the pitch-dark with my eyes closed, sensing, almost seeing, bright flashes of light across the room and inches from my face as a Lakota medicine man performed the ritual. When I felt the person to my left offer me a rock, a rock pulsating with energy, radiating the warmth of all the hands and bodies that had touched it before me, I cradled that rock in my palm and held it on my body where I needed healing, before passing it on to the next person in the sacred circle. Later that evening, eyes now open, I watched and prayed with the others in the circle as the medicine man did battle with an evil spirit and drew it out of a person suffering from a mysterious illness. 

At a weeklong Sun Dance near the Rosebud Indian Reservation, I watched as pemmican and tobacco were buried in the earth at the center of the dance circle, offerings for the spirit of the freshly felled cottonwood tree to be erected there, and as the tree itself, the axis mundi, was adorned with thousands of prayer ties, bits of colorful cloth wrapped around sacred tobacco. One evening, stirring a pot of venison stew in an outdoor kitchen, I heard a Lakota medicine man speak of the spirit of the deer that guided him. During the days, as I stood in the arbor for supporters that surrounded the sacred circle, I heard many prayers to Tuŋkášila, Grandfather, and frequent talk of the spirit of the buffalo, the spirit of the drum, the spirit of the ancestors. 

No one in these Native American communities called their ideas and practices animism. The people I met weren’t concerned about labels and categories; they were committed to living  their worldview of the harmony of the world, nature and spirit as one. But brushing up against this honoring of spirits taught me that this way of life—in which everything is alive, the natural world and the spiritual world continually weaving into and out of each other, spirits abounding in the land—was no relic of a bygone past, no curiosity of primitive peoples. This was a living reality for people now, people here in Minnesota and South Dakota—a reality I had tasted and admired but didn’t understand. So when Tyrone said of the Hmong, “They’re animists,” I didn’t know what he was saying.

Getting to know several of the Hmong women in our congregation didn’t help me understand. Over rice and tea, with one of the women’s older sons translating for us, I heard stories of how they escaped, how they ran over mine-seeded mountains and rice fields and across bloody rivers, how the bodies of family members and friends fell around them, shot by Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese, how others were captured and dragged back to captivity. I admired the intricate textiles they created and sold at the local farmers’ market alongside the vegetables they grew: red and green Christmas ornaments, bright-colored quilts with geometric designs in reverse appliqué, cloth hangings embroidered with colorful scenes of monkeys in trees, dragons, rice plants, rivers, and battalions of soldiers carrying rifles and ammunition belts. One day they brought over the traditional clothes of one of the women and dressed me up in them after lunch—the indigo and batik skirt, the embroidered sash, the heavy silver necklace that covered my chest, the tall headdress—giggling about my long bare legs sticking out from under the skirt like two saplings.  

I never learned which of the many hill tribes they belonged to. Black Hmong? Striped Hmong? White Hmong, Green Hmong, Blue Hmong? Flower Hmong? I never saw inside their homes, those intimate spaces where altars reside and acts of devotion are performed daily. I never visited the agricultural plots that the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Services and the Lao Family Community of Minnesota helped them establish, the fields where they grew the tenderest green beans and baby spinach sold at the market, the envy of the other farmers. I never asked them about spirits. Or about their experience of eating those small squares of bread and downing those tiny cups of grape juice in church with brown and black and white Americans, some with whole bodies, some broken. All I had was the testimony of my friend—“They’re animists”—and my love for their radiant smiles, their gentle, still spirits, baptized by the fire of suffering.

When I left Minnesota in the early nineties I lost contact with the Hmong people and the Native Americans I had come to know. I landed first in South Carolina, a decidedly Christian state, and then in Washington, one of the most unchurched states in the nation. Animism was not a living presence in either place, and it slipped from my consciousness easily, remaining hidden until the fall of 2016, when my husband and I trekked in the hills of northern Laos, in the province of Louangphrabang. 

In Nong Khiaw, hours north of the city of Louangphrabang, we boarded a small boat to travel up the Nam Ou river toward China. Along the way, we visited several villages, then disembarked to trek to a remote village higher in the mountains. After a riverside lunch of fried fish, smoked eggplant, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, and fresh chilis dipped in salt, we set off. We climbed steadily for hours, passing through river brush and wet fields of rice, teak forests, dry fields of rice, and jungle. The vistas amazed. The mist, mok bang, winding through the mountains, now revealing, now concealing the blue-green hills, often blurring the line between earth and sky, was redolent of spiritual mysteries. It stirred me, that diaphanous veil, drew my heart toward the unseen, the unnameable, the unknown. But what pulled harder at my heart was something lowlier. At the edge of a rice field, hidden among luxuriant rice fronds, atop a pole sunk into the wet earth, stood a shrine, an A-frame about sixteen inches high and twelve inches wide at its base, with a woven bamboo roof and a scrap-wood floor. 

At first glance, the miniature hut looked more like a birdhouse than a shrine. In Louangphrabang City, as well as in Vietnam and Cambodia, we had seen many shrines for ancestor devotion. Some were simple boxes of bare wooden planks topped with a corrugated aluminum roof, each box holding an offering of rice balls and a plastic bottle of water. But most were miniature pagodas, ornately carved and painted a gaudy gold, lavished inside with marigolds and lotus blossoms, dragon fruit, brimming bowls of the ancestors’ favorite foods, fake money, bottles of expensive whiskey, smoldering incense, and glinting candles. Modest or magnificent, those shrines were at least four times larger than this meager shelter hidden in the field, and they stood in a place of honor outside or inside the house or restaurant or business or Buddhist temple. This makeshift structure at the edge of the rice field was far smaller and lowlier than the poorest ancestor shrine we had seen, and there was no house or temple in sight, just a sea of rustling rice fronds, the forest beyond, and, beyond that, the mountains veiled in the mysteries of the spirit. 

I stopped and looked inside the little house. Small rice balls lined the floor and a small clay pot of water sat at one end.   

“Is that a shrine?” I asked our guide.

Joi nodded and walked on, still humming the song he’d been humming off and on all day as he walked ahead of us on the trail.

“Way out here?”

“It’s for the spirit of the rice field,” he said.

“Are the people here animists?”

Another nod.

“Are you?” 

Joi nodded and went humming up the trail, and I followed. The Vietnamese and Cambodians we had talked with had told us that their families, like most people they knew, combined ancestor devotion and Buddhism, and we had seen the two kinds of shrines in use in almost every house and pagoda we entered. No one had said anything about animism. 

As evening fell and we climbed higher toward the village where we would spend the night, I couldn’t get the image of that little house for the spirit out of my mind. So beautiful, so moving. Rice was life to the people living in these hills, and this shrine was a visible sign of that. That sign stood as a remembrance of that gift, and it showed their gratitude for it. The wonder I felt at this act of devotion was steady and whole. No intellectual objections to naïveté or primitivism shook it. No theological condemnations of polytheism beat it down. No dismissal of this shrine as self-serving superstition, the propitiating or bribing of spirits to ensure a good crop and hence health and prosperity, shattered it. Not even worries that I, an outsider, unfamiliar with animism, completely misunderstood this sign tainted that wonder. Nothing clouded my joy in the presence of this beautiful gesture of the human spirit, one bearing witness to the giftedness and miracle of existence. From that moment, whenever we walked through rice fields, I looked eagerly for another such sign. And when one appeared, my heart bowed toward it, brimming with thanks and love, for its presence, for the fecundity of the earth, for the human spirit, for the miracle of existence.

The next day, after trekking down from the village to the boat, we traveled farther up the river, to a small landing where a herd of water buffalo was lounging in the water and on the banks. In an open-sided shelter overlooking the river, we lunched on sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, fish steamed in banana leaves, bamboo shoots, pomelo fresh from a tree, and sweet, sweet bananas. Fortified, we began another trek, this time to what a small hand-painted sign near the beginning of the trail called a holy cave. Why holy? I wondered. Had a monk lived there? Had a special revelation or ceremony occurred there? We started on the path. Just before it angled upward, we passed a shrine on our left. The floor of this shrine was a piece of rough-hewn tree trunk strewn with the drippings of candles, its roof a single piece of tin folded in half. Inside were balls of sticky rice and a cup of water. A shrine to the spirit of the cave. What was the gift of this cave? Joi had already started up the steep path that cut through dense vegetation, too far away for questions.

The climb was steep and slippery, with stairs fashioned out of roots and rocks and an intermittent handrail made of bamboo lashed to tree trunks. We climbed and climbed, pulling ourselves up, breathing heavily. The entrance was small and unremarkable except for the hand-lettered sign that read “Cave is here.” Not “Please remove shoes before entering the temple”—words we were familiar with from slipping into Buddhist temples and pagodas. Not “Take off your shoes, you’re standing on holy ground.” Ordinary words, with no pointers to or echoes of spirit: cave is here. We snapped on our headlamps and followed Joi inside, ducking and twisting to fit ourselves in.

The daylight disappeared, and the air grew dank. Joi walked steadily into the darkness, shining his light on stalagmites and stalactites. About one hundred feet in, his light shone on a ceiling blackened with soot from fires. During the American carpet bombing of northern Laos, the villagers nearby had used this cave as a bomb shelter. At the first sound of plane engines they would gather their families and run up the long path to the cave. They lived together inside, cooking and sleeping, until all was quiet again. 

Joi walked deeper into the cave. After another one hundred feet, a sour, acrid smell greeted us. He shone his light upwards. On the ceiling hung hundreds of bats. At Joi’s request, we stood still, silent, so as not to disturb them. Joi kept us there, motionless, his light fixed on the black creatures, a long time. He loved bats, the way he seemed to appreciate and respect all things in the jungle—the sesame bushes, flowers, and medicinal plants; the ants and snakes he stopped to point out to us along the way. At last his light left the bats, and he began walking, deeper into the cave. We followed. The air grew danker, cooler, heavier, denser, sucking the breath out of me. The darkness blackened and the walls closed in on us. The cave was 450 feet long. We were only a little over halfway to the end. 

“Is there a way out the other side?” I called to Joi, who had disappeared into the darkness ahead of me.

No answer. 

We kept walking. Finally our way was blocked. The cave narrowed too much for our bodies to continue. We turned around and headed back the same way we had come.

A straggler on the trek into the cave, I was first on the way out, eager for fresh air and sunlight. And eager too, for the lightness and innocence of the open sky. Inside the cave there was a pressure, a presence. Of something. Something living. Heavy, threatening, fearful. An odor of sorrow and death. Suffering. Perhaps it was just the lack of oxygen and light that I felt. Or the leapings of my imagination. But it was palpable. And when we emerged into full daylight I was relieved.

When we exited the cave, we didn’t climb back down the path to the shrine near the river. We took a different path, the one on the ridge of the hill that the villagers had used during the bombings. It was a long walk, and I imagined the women carrying babies and small children, the older children and men carrying rice and pots for cooking and firewood, everyone hurrying, the planes throbbing above them, all of the villagers running for the refuge of the cave. The cave that had sheltered them, held their community together. The cave that had given them the gift of life, brought them out alive from their suffering. The cave for which they were grateful and for whose spirit they daily brought offerings of thanks, rice balls, water, and burning candles, placing them in the shrine at the bottom of the path from the river, offering food and drink in remembrance. A holy cave. 

A holy cave. No holy men or women had meditated there. No special revelations had been received there. No miracles or supernatural wonders had occurred there. The cave was sanctified by the sheltering presence the village encountered there, by their recognition of that sheltering presence and the gift given to them, by their daily acts of remembrance and their thankfulness. All of this bound them to the spirit of the cave and to one another.

A visible sign of an invisible grace—this classic definition of sacrament is common shorthand for Augustine’s discussion of sacraments in his treatise “Catechizing of the Uninstructed.” Augustine’s own phrasing in that treatise may be translated this way: “the signs of divine things are, it is true, things visible, but . . . the invisible things themselves are also honored in them.”6 By either the common definition or this translation of Augustine’s words, the shrines of the Hmong and other hill tribes in Laos—shrines to the spirit of the rice field, the shrine to the spirit of the cave, other shrines to other spirits—are sacraments. The invisible thing, the spirit, the gracious gift of fertility or shelter, is visible in the concrete houses of remembrance and devotion and in the physical acts of offering food and drink in thanks. By means of the concrete object in the physical word, the spirit is honored.

Such a claim need not shock. Augustine himself, in his Reply to Faustus, says that every religion, true or false, has its visible signs or sacraments. John Calvin repeats this view and, building on another of Augustine’s definitions of sacrament, as a “visible word,” offers several metaphors for understanding why “visible words” are essential to the spiritual life, why we cannot live by words alone.7 The last metaphor Calvin offers is mirror

Or we may call them mirrors, in which we may contemplate the riches of the grace which God bestows upon us. For then, as has been said, he manifests himself to us in as far as our dullness can enable us to recognise him, and testifies his love and kindness to us more expressly than by word.8

The misunderstood and much maligned mystic Jonathan Edwards experienced these mirrors, this harmony of the natural and the spiritual, not only in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but in all of the natural world. As he recorded in his astounding testament of presence and attentiveness, Images or Shadows of Divine Things,everywhere he looked in nature he saw the beauty of the world and, like the Israelites at Sinai, he saw the voice of God present there, in lanced wounds and vanishing shadows, in spiders sailing through air in delight on wind-borne web strings, in the intimate union of a branch grafted onto a fruit tree.9

We need not call these visible signs “sacraments.” That is the term used by Western Christianity. The Eastern church never adopted that language; the Orthodox choose to speak instead of mysteries, which they understand, following the “treasure in earthen vessels” language of 2 Corinthians 4:7 (KJV), as earthen vessels that convey divine grace to humankind, vessels that allow human beings to experience the mystical presence of divine grace and to commune with it. I find mystery more evocative of what happens in those moments of encounter between the unseen spirit and the things of this world. But whether we speak of sacrament or mystery, real presence or mystical presence, mirror or image or shadow, the goal is the same: to bring human beings and the divine into communion with one another by means of something in our everyday world that can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted.

Seeing balls of sticky rice and water in a humble wooden shrine on the edge of a rice field or at the bottom of a path to a cave, like seeing the bread and wine in Communion, enables us to remember and meditate on the beauty of the world and the gift an unseen presence or reality bestows. We’re human beings, not disembodied spirits. Every one of us— Native American, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Goddess devotee, agnostic, atheist, animist—is human, akin to humus, Latin for earth. We speak of “my body” and of ourselves as “embodied” and as “having a body,” but that smacks of a hard and fast separation between body and spirit that doesn’t do justice to our experience as unified selves who do not exist outside of our bodies. It may be truer to our experience to say we’re body-mind-spirits or to simply say we arebodies. Not that we are our bodies, a biological organism and nothing more, but that we are bodies. We don’t have any experience of what it means not to be a body-self. Our consciousness depends on our being a body. Even an out-of-body experience depends on being a particular body, before and after that experience. Our being, human being, arises from the constant interweaving of our unique visible organism and our unique invisible consciousness. One does not exist without the other. We do not exist without both.

Because we are bodies, we cannot escape the physicality of our existence, its distractions and seductions. We’re easily dazed by the demands of the physical world, and we forget there is more than what we see, more than what we know. We’re lulled into taking the gift of existence for granted. We deem it our right, get lost in the power of our will, our needs, our desires, and we forget there is a world beyond ourselves. 

Because we are bodies, we cannot bypass the corporeal world on our way to a spiritual world. We need concrete objects to help us remember there is more than what our eyes see and our ears hear and all our senses perceive. We need visible signs to point us beyond what is visible, to expand our perspective, open us to gratitude for all that we depend on, all that sustains us, all that we are given. We may be naive Cartesians, unrepentant Cartesians, post-Cartesians, or animists who never separated the natural and spiritual worlds, but whatever our philosophy, we need visible signs to call our attention to invisible things, that we may remember and give thanks. To commune with the spirit, we need objects from our material world—bread, wine, sticky rice balls, water.

The Hmong came to Minnesota seeking refuge and a new home. They came with no written language of their own and no understanding of English words, but they were fluent in the interweaving of the natural and spiritual worlds and familiar with spirits of many kinds. In inviting them to eat bread and drink grape juice in Communion with other human beings, to partake in the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, Tyrone gave them a visible word, a concrete mirror in which to contemplate the riches of grace, to encounter the spirit of Jesus, his love and kindness—whether they named it that or not—and to experience in a strange new land the invisible world of the spirit through visible signs in the natural world.

However anthropologists may categorize the worldview of the Hmong; however scholars of the history of religions may define animism; however theologians and other church authorities may interpret and circumscribe the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, this much I know: in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Hmong and non-Hmong, with no words in common, communed in spirit, with the spirit, by means of bread and grape juice. Because we are bodies.

  1. “Service for the Lord’s Day,” in Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 68–69.
  2. Book of Order 2015–2017: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, 2015), W-2.4011.a.
  3. Although Augustine often discusses sacraments in these terms, this exact wording comes from the Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, trans. John A McHugh and Charles J. Callan (New York, NY: Joseph F. Wagner, 1947), 143.
  4. Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1979), 68.
  5. Thurman, Head and Heart, 68.
  6. Augustine, “On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed,” trans. S. D. F. Salmond, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 3, St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 312. 
  7. Augustine, c. Faust. 19.11; and Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 4.14.6.
  8. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.6.
  9. See Edwards, Images or Shadows of Divine Things, ed. Perry Miller (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977),aposthumously published collection of observations Edwards recorded in his personal journal.