Baptists Open Doors and Hearts to Refugees from Burma

nabfAs North American Baptists welcome fellow Baptists from Burma in their congregation, these refugees bring new life, new vitality, and a new sense of missional engagement. It is mutual ministry. As congregations minister to the refugees, the refugees minister to the congregations.

Karen GirlMortar shells flying overhead, Poe Clee was born in 1983 in a make-shift camp in a jungle where his family had fled ruthless Burmese army soldiers carrying out their leader’s orders for ethnic cleansing.

A day later, Poe Clee’s family ran for the safety of Thailand and the refugee camps that had been established for the ethnic groups, including the Chin and Karen, targeted by the dictatorial regime.

For the next 24 years, Poe Clee lived in squalid refugee camps, four refugee camps in all. While each camp had some unique aspects, all were similarly rustic—no electricity or running water, with inhabitants living in bamboo homes built by hand and wearing clothing fashioned by hand-woven fabric. Inhabitants could not venture beyond the boundaries of the fenced-in camp.

Growing up in almost prison-like conditions, Poe Clee made the most of his time, clamoring to learn English from a discarded textbook and befriending aid workers who spoke English.

Finally in 2004 the Thai government opened the then-nine refugee camps scattered throughout the country, allowing inhabitants to be resettled in other countries.

In July 2007 Poe Clee’s airplane, the first airplane ride of his life, landed first at Los Angeles International airport and then at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, opening the door to a life beyond his wildest imagination. Even the airport itself was a cacophony of new sounds and sights for Poe Clee—electronic signs, elevators, public address systems, even toilets and water fountains.

Thrust into a new life, Poe Clee and his family, he said, “were looking for spiritual strength. We were overwhelmed with all the new things. We believed it was relevant to seek spiritual strength.”

Already Christians, thanks to the focused outreach of Baptists in Burma for more than two centuries, including the evangelistic efforts of Adoniram and Ann Judson in the early 1800s, the young refugee and his family within days befriended a fellow Christian refugee from the war-torn country who had been in America for a few months. Their new friend had become involved in Chicago’s North Shore Baptist Church. Their first Sunday in their new home, Poe Clee and his family sat beside their new friend in worship services at North Shore.

Over the coming days and weeks, the church helped Poe Clee and his family and many other refugees with the challenging task of become acclimated to America—finding and furnishing a place to live, applying for a job, obtaining personal identification, navigating the streets of Chicago, getting children settled into school.

Today Poe Clee, who speaks not only English but also Thai, Burmese and two Karen dialects, serves as refugee coordinator at the church that historically has reached out to non-English speaking newcomers to the city.

“We have seen the involvement of the church play a critical role in helping refugees in both the short-term and long-term,” said the recent graduate of Chicago’s North Park University.

North Shore is just one of hundreds of Baptist churches throughout North America that have opened their doors and their hearts to the surge of refugees from Burma, now called Myanmar.

“It is gratifying to see how the work of Adoniram and Ann Judson almost 200 years ago has come full circle as Chin and Karen people from Burma are coming to North America and witnessing to us of their deep and passionate faith in Jesus Christ,” said George Bullard, general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance.

“This makes even more important the 50th anniversary of NABF in 2014 where we will also celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Triennial Convention that supported the missionary work of the Judsons.”

According to U.S. Census data, the Burmese population in America has grown from approximately 14,600 in 2000 to almost 100,000 a decade later. Just five years ago, in 2007, these refugees were the largest refugee group to be resettled in America.

The refugees are scattered throughout the United States, according to Rothang Chhangte, who served as the liaison for refugees from Burma for American Baptists before her recent change to director for Baptist World Aid for the Baptist World Alliance.

In west Texas, leaders at First Baptist Church of Midland, became aware of a large number of Chin refugees relocating to their medium-sized city located between El Paso and Ft. Worth. After meeting with Chin pastor Duh Ceu, the historic church actively began meeting the refugees’ practical needs, such as transportation, language and citizenship preparation classes, clothing, food and so forth.

In September 2011 the church joined in a covenant with Basin Baptist Network, Crestview Baptist Church and the Baptist General Convention of Texas to sponsor Midland Chin Baptist Church as a new language church start.

At the beginning of 2012, First Baptist Midland provided a place of worship for the Chin congregation, which consistently welcomes close to 300 people on Sunday mornings, according to associate minister of missions Hank Henry.

“God is blessing the church,” said pastor Duh Ceu, who also served as a pastor in his native Burma, in Malaysia where he lived for a little more than two years and in Spokane, Washington, where he first settled in the United States. The 37-year-old pastor expressed appreciation for all that his new Baptist friends in Texas have done to help the young but growing congregation.

The influx of Burmese refugees into Canada has similarly surged, with as many as 3,500 Karen refugees settling in Canada since 2006.

Six years ago, according to Sheldon Dyck, pastor of First Baptist Church London in Ontario, “We witnessed about 100 Karen refugees literally show up at our church.

“They came to our church because of their Christian faith and Baptist roots and also because there were a few Karen people already in our church who would welcome them and who would help as translators.”

Since that time the church has intentionally tried to help the refugees with practicalities of tasks such as settling into new homes and finding jobs. While the Karen children and youth have been integrated into the church’s established children and youth programs, the Karen have their own language worship service.

“We had been praying that God would guide us in our mission in London. We see the arrival of the Karen refugees as an answer to our prayers. But what is wonderful is that the Karen community sees our church as an answer to their prayers. They were praying that they would find a receptive Christian community in Canada.  

“The Karen community has been a tangible reminder to our church of how we are invited to live beyond ourselves,” explained pastor Dyck.

A little more than 100 miles south of London, Ontario, Baptists in Windsor, Ontario, also welcomed an influx of Karen refugees into their community. Grace Baptist Church in Windsor, led by pastor Stan Mantle, immediately mobilized to help the newcomers.

Doing so seemed to be a natural fit for this church’s personality. Almost 40 years ago, the church intentionally chose to join an English-speaking congregation with a Czech congregation to create a bi-cultural church.

Today, in addition to English, Slovak and Serbo-Croatian services, the church hosts a Karen language service, led by a Karen deacon in the congregation. Typically the Karen attend the church’s English worship service at 11:00 a.m. and then also participate in their Karen language service at 12:45 p.m.

“We have been inspired by the tenacious faith and devotion of people in upheaval and transition,” said pastor Mantle.

Working with internationals, including the Karen, has “blessed,” “challenged” and “rejuvenated” his church, he added.

“It (outreach to the Karen) has brought us some wonderful new friends and partners with whom to labor together side-by-side for the Lord,” he said.  

Church renewal is not an uncommon benefit for churches willing to reach out to refugees, according to Chhangte.

Acknowledging that Christians are “’supposed’ to show hospitality to those in need,” Chhangte said that such obedience to the gospel has its rewards.  

As North American Baptists welcome fellow Baptists from Burma into their congregation, the refugees “help many times renew the life of a church spiritually simply by their presence. Many churches have grown and found new life,” she said.