SAN ANTONIO—In five and a half years, more than 700 Burmese refugees have passed through the international ministries of First Baptist Church in San Antonio.
The influx resulted from the United States’ agreement with the United Nations to accept displaced Burmese as political refugees 10 years ago.
Burma—officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar—borders the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in Southeast Asia. After a coup in 1962, a military dictatorship ruled the country nearly 50 years. As the government seized the property of small tribes, it forced them to relocate in bordering countries.
First Baptist Church ministers to many representatives from those small tribes, said Wayne Williams, director of the church’s international/Asian ministries.
First Baptist’s involvement with Burmese refugees began when five families from the Karen ethnic group arrived in San Antonio. A staff member already was fluent in the Thai language spoken by many Karen people.
“The reason we were asked to help the first five families that arrived was because they were from the refugee (camps) in Thailand and spoke Thai,” Williams said.
At that time, First Baptist already had an active Thai/Laotian ministry under the leadership of Boun Phommachanh, an associate pastor. Today, Phommachanh is the pastor of a Thai/Laotian congregation within the church made up of Thai-speaking Burmese refugees.
Every Sunday, the First Baptist conducts Burmese worship services in four languages—one to accommodate each of the languages the members speak. Each group functions as its own congregation, with separate leaders and ministries, but all operate under the umbrella of First Baptist Church.
“We have developed among all of these groups strong leaders,” Williams said. “Within their language groups, they have a leader, a president (and) deacons.”
The Karen worship in the Karen language, although many of them speak and understand Thai because of their experiences in refugee camps in Thailand. The Chin speak Burmese, the closest to a common language among the 125 tribes of Burma. The Zomi, a sub-group of Chin, praise God in the Zomi language. And the Thai/Laotian congregation worships in Thai.
“At any given time, the person you are communicating with could be communicating in any one of four languages,” Williams said. However, he added, “there has been enough commonality here to minister to these folks.”
In addition to about 300 Burmese who attend a worship service on Sunday, Williams said, they also host least 10 home worship events each week.
“They are very spiritually minded and very dependent upon the leadership of the Lord in their lives,” Williams said. “They are very sweet and gentle people. They have an extraordinary faith and willingness to rely upon the provision of God.”
Last year, the Baptist Health Foundation of San Antonio awarded First Baptist a two-year grant to provide resources and a program to address refugees’ substance abuse, family development and trauma issues. The church hopes to provide an assistance program that can be replicated for other refugee ministries around the country.
“We have had several projects already in providing counseling in group sessions for folks facing these kinds of challenges,” he said. “We are working with the Baptist Health Foundation through this grant to provide a program of assistance to them.”
Due to a strong work ethic, the Burmese refugees seldom have trouble finding employment. Most initially work minimum-wage jobs in the food service or manufacturing industry, but they tend to progress rapidly in their work.
“They give you more than a day’s labor for a day’s wage,” Williams said.