EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series on Charlottes immigrant churches.
It was barely 10 in the morning last Sunday, and already the churchs parking lots were so packed that the police directing traffic were closing some of them off with orange cones.
People exited their cars, passed a welcoming statue of St. Joseph and streamed into a pair of giant tents, where the pop-pop-pop of fireworks periodically filled the air.
The Year of the Snake had arrived, and St. Joseph Vietnamese Catholic Church was throwing a big party to celebrate the New Year.
Or Tet, as the Vietnamese call it.
With 800 families on its rolls, the growing church has become the cultural as well as the spiritual home to Vietnamese Catholics in Charlotte.
With the second Mass of the day still 30 minutes away, congregants and people just looking to sample some of the Queen Citys diversity dined on eggrolls, sticky rice cakes (banh chung) and brothy noodle soup (pho).
They also cheered on ceremonial lion dancers, young church members rearing their costumed heads to ward off evil spirits as bystanders slipped dollar bills into the lions mouth for good luck.
Thomas Tran, 13, a student at Carmel Middle School, paraded behind the dancers, banging on a drum to set their pace.
Every Saturday, we practice, said Tran, whos been attending St. Josephs all his life. I really enjoy it, and its a way for the church to keep the youth involved.
The church also has a Vietnamese school that teaches young people the language and grounds them in their Catholic faith.
You learn more about God every day, said Matthew Nguyen, 14, a student at Rock Hill High whos attended the church since I was a kid with his mother, who works in a nail shop, and his father, who cuts iron.
But the Rev. Tri Truong the parishs Vietnamese-born pastor since May 2011 said he also knows that, unlike their parents, most of the churchs children and teens speak better English than Vietnamese.
So, after he arrived at St. Joseph, he turned one of the churchs four weekend Masses into an English language service, both for the young and for the non-Vietnamese Catholics who live near the southwest Charlotte church.
At St. Joseph, we provide (the young) with a place to learn, to have fellowship and faith, he said. I also want them to worship in the language they feel comfortable with.
Thinh Tran, 40 and chair of the churchs finance committee, sometimes accompanies his two children to the English-language Mass, and sometimes goes to one in Vietnamese.
When he was their age, his mother wanted a better life for her children. So Tran and two of his brothers one older, one younger escaped from Vietnam in 1981 on a small boat, and then spent many months in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines.
Finally, a foster family invited him and his younger brother to North Carolina.
Now, as a longtime member of St. Josephs, he speaks for many in the congregation when he expresses gratitude for a church.
It kind of brings me back to Vietnam (every week), he says of his time at St. Joseph. Im in the middle of America and Vietnam here, and Im blessed to have two cultures.