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Missions and Conversions
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Missions and Conversions
Creating the Montagnard-Dega Refugee Community
Palgrave Macmillan
14 Jul 2009
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This insightful ethnography explores cross-cultural contact in the highlands of Vietnam, Christian conversion, refugee exile, and the formation of the Dega refugee community in the United States.


This insightful ethnography explores cross-cultural contact in the highlands of Vietnam, Christian conversion, refugee exile, and the formation of the Dega refugee community in the United States.


"In this lively book, Thomas Pearson describes the multiple ‘conversions’ that produced the Christian Montagnard-Dega community in the United States from the vantage point of that Dega diaspora, looking back and interpreting their life journeys in terms of their new-found religion. Based on a wide array of documentary sources and interviews and on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the Dega community in North Carolina, Pearson skillfully weaves numerous narratives together to tell the story of the conversion of disparate tribal groups in Vietnam to Montagnards; of their political conversion to guerrilla warriors and their religious conversion to Dega Christianity; of their conversion from guerrilla fighters to ‘refugees’ in the diaspora; and of the conversion of Special Forces to loyalty to their erstwhile allies. Bringing the voices of the Dega and their American supporters to life, Pearson carefully sketches a picture of the Dega as active or passive agents - as warriors, Christians and refugees. Asserting that the conversion to God follows rather precedes the Montagnards’ conversion to Dega Christianity in the context of armed rebellion, Pearson notes that his Dega interlocutors always situate their Christianity in opposition with ‘Godless’ Communism. Paradoxically, during their fight against what they see as the Communist Vietnamese suppression of their tribal customs the Montagnards turned to God, claiming to "fight for the Lord" who, however, is just as inimical to tribal spirits and customs as their Vietnamese enemies. This book is indispensable reading for students of the Vietnam War, of missions and conversions, and of transnational migration." - Oscar Salemink, Professor of Anthropology, VU University Amsterdam andauthor of The Ethnography of Vietnam's Central Highlanders: A Historical Contextualization, 1850-1990

"Missions and Conversions is an extraordinary book: an original and convincing analysis of the making of one group of refugees through tropes of conversion . . .Tracking back and forth between Southeast Asia and the United States, official texts and first-hand accounts, engagement and detachment, Pearson offers a telling account of cultural and religious transformation. The book startles us to consider the power of tropes of Christian conversion in U.S. military and humanitarian activities around the globe." - Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz and author of Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

"The purpose of Pearson’s interesting book is to describe, analyze, and explain the construction of a new collective identity, that of the Montagnard-Dega refugee community of North Carolina. The book uses the trope of ‘conversion’ in a powerful and multi-faceted way to show how the people themselves have conceived of their transition from the ‘village habitus’ of their original home in the highlands of Vietnam to their current status as refugees and U.S. citizens, by way of their past experience fighting against the Viet Cong alongside U.S. troops . . .Pearson’s book shows how, in a colonial or neo-colonial situation, missionaries, anthropologists, and military have contributed to the reproduction of these discourses, and suggests what role they play in legitimating modern hegemony and the western notion of progress." - Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling and author of Discourse on Civility and Barbarity


Representing the Montagnards
The Conversion of the Dega
Conversion to Refugees
Sickness, Sin, and Animal Sacrifice
Hearts and Minds
The Conversion of the Special Forces


THOMAS PEARSON is Associate Director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion at Wabash College, USA.