CORNELIUS – Yes, there were girls dressed as angels who danced and sang. Yes, Pastor Travis told the Christmas story. Yes, the youth choir sang “Silent Night.” But then came the ear-bursting kettle drums, which made every church band in Lake Norman sound tame.

And then came the lions.

It was a Montagnard Christmas at Community in Christ Lutheran, a celebration like no other. There were colorful flags, tribal dances and the lions, those flamboyant two-man lions, with eyes that blinked and jaws that chomped and long, glittering bodies that suddenly popped upright when one boy jumped on the shoulders of his partner.

Community in Christ ministers to these Montagnards, who are Christian refugees from the central highlands of Vietnam. But on Dec. 15, the Montegnards ministered back to the church.

The Montagnards fought alongside American Special Forces during the Vietnam War. After the war, the United Nations resettled these Vietnamese fighters in Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte.

Why North Carolina?

According to Learn NC out of UNC-Chapel Hill, a number of Special Forces veterans lived in the state; there were numerous entry-level job opportunities here; and the terrain and climate were similar to their land in Vietnam.

During subsequent decades, fear of genocide and religious persecution drove thousands more Montagnards to North Carolina. In summer 2013, according to The Lutheran magazine, 900 more refugees arrived in North Carolina.

Community in Christ Lutheran’s website reports that more than 2,000 Montagnards live in Charlotte. They arrive not speaking English, with no job, no car and very few possessions. They must quickly transition from an agricultural lifestyle to an urban one. Many of the kids drop out of school.

Community in Christ Lutheran began its Montagnard ministry by helping a few refugee boys with their homework. Church volunteers began driving kids up to North County Regional Library, 40 minutes north of the kids’ West Charlotte neighborhood. As the tutoring program grew, the church eventually bought vans to transport the kids up to Huntersville. Now every Monday night, they drive 30 kids to meet with 30 volunteer tutors.

In 2012, the church began renting an apartment in West Charlotte, where they host Bible studies, Sunday night youth group, tutoring and ESL classes. A bilingual college intern, Thih Rolan, lives in the apartment and is available for on-site ministry.

The Lutheran Church has a special heart for refugees. Since 1939, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has worked with refugees from around the globe. Since 1991, the Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas has helped Montagnards find homes, social services and jobs.

Who better to present the Christmas story than this group of refugees? Who better to understand the story of a young man and his pregnant wife, who were forced to travel to a foreign land, where they had to make do with what they had: a stable, a trough and a scrap of faith that must have felt completely inadequate?