Trip to Myanmar prompts launch of Karen refugee church in Austin

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AUSTIN—More than 1,000 Karen refugees from Myanmar—formerly called Burma—moved to Austin in recent years, but Christians among them were left without a place to worship. But that changed a few months ago when Baptists in the area started a church focused on reaching the Karen.

Volunteers from Crestview Baptist Church in Georgetown (left to right) Glenna Iwami, Carolyn Winters, George Winters and Carolyn Watkins greet a Karen refugee family of seven at the airport—Tha Boe, father; Eh Wah, mother; son Judson, age 16; son Zion, age 13; son Daniel, age 11; son Henry, age 7; and son Winston, age 5.

“As we started learning about the refugees, we found that these people are culturally Christian,” said Dan Wooldridge, pastor of Crestview Baptist Church in Georgetown. He noted the impact of pioneering Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson’s work in Burma in the 1800s.

“They have been heavily influenced by the gospel and are open to the gospel. But they are not all believers. We noticed that no one was ministering to them in Austin. So, some of our lay people started helping them,” he said.

The Burma Connection— a nonprofit that helps Burmese refugees across the globe— is working in partnership with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Austin Baptist Association, Williamson Baptist Association, Crestview Baptist Church in Georgetown and Austin Baptist Church to give leadership to this group of about 75 members and help them become a self-supporting church.

North Austin Christian Church in Austin allowed the group to meet bi-weekly on Thursday nights during the fall. In November, Austin Baptist Church opened its doors to the Karen church so that they could gather weekly on Sunday afternoons.

“One of the primary reasons they are refugees is their religious beliefs,” said Gary Watkins, a member of Crestview Baptist Church and co-founder of The Burma Connection.

Members of the Tha Boe family—Eh Wah, Daniel, Henry and Zion—decorate a tree for their first Christmas in the United States.

“Until recently, here in Austin, they didn’t have a place to worship. They are now in a country where they can worship freely, but they didn’t have a place to do it.”

Crestview Baptist Church’s involvement with the Karen is not a new phenomenon. Reed Iwami, co-founder of The Burma Connection, began leading church members on mission trips and humanitarian aid projects to the country six years ago.

But the efforts did not begin to focus on the Karen in Austin until summer 2008 when Iwami, Watkins and the church sponsored a Karen family of seven to come to the United States.

“This family was in a refugee camp with 15,000 people where they had been for 12 years,” Watkins said. “The camp had no electricity and running water—just bad conditions. It has been an amazing experience helping them come to Austin, but also incredibly frustrating journey since they have arrived” because of the resettlement process.

Although government agencies and refugee organizations are attempting to help with resettlement, they are understaffed and funded, causing the transition to be slow and frustrating for the families at times, Watkins said. In addition, the language barrier and the state of the economy make it difficult for the families to get jobs to support themselves.

“Think of the things that you do each day in the community,” Watkins said. “If you didn’t know the language or the process, how would you manage to figure out a bus schedule, pay your bills or read a notice from school? It is a sad and heartbreaking situation, but there are all kinds of opportunities for churches to become involved with refugees because of this, and it is an absolute must for us to help.”

Karen Christians worship at the Nu Poe refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border in March 2008. The camp has a population of about 10,000, and the homes are bamboo, without running water and electricity. (PHOTOS/Courtesy of Reed Iwami/The Burma Connection)

As Iwami and Watkins—along with Crestview Baptist Church—saw the hardship involved with resettlement, they became compelled to let local churches know about the needs of the refugees and spur the groups on to action.

Through this, a small Christian community church allowed the Karen to use their facility to worship every other Thursday beginning in May. In November, Austin Baptist Church allowed the Karen to use their facility every Sunday afternoon. This began the process to create an official Karen church, offering physical help and spiritual encouragement to the refugees.

 “We hope that the church will continue to grow, and I think that will happen,” Iwami said. “I hope that the Austin Baptist churches will embrace the refugee community. They need a lot of help. When they come to the United States, they come virtually with nothing.”

When the group first held their first worship service in May, more than 50 Karen attended. Since then, the worship service is averaging 75, with a high attendance of more than 100. Several members of Crestview Baptist Church in Georgetown provide transportation for the refugees while the church looks for ways to purchase transportation. The leadership group is striving to be facilitator, letting the Karen people make the decision about the direction of the church and giving ownership to the endeavor.

“We want it to be about them and what they want a worship service to be like and what will bring joy to their hearts,” Watkins said. “We want to be involved as much as they want us to be. At this point, we are just trying to find the financial resources that will eventually allow them to be self-supporting.”

In the beginning, a Laotian pastor in San Antonio who speaks English and Thai was driving to Austin to lead the bi-weekly meetings through using a Karen translator. Since the group is organizing into an official church, the members have found a full-time Karen pastor who has been in the United States since August.

Marty Mosher, a church planter with Texas Baptists helping with the Karen church endeavor, sees the collaboration to provide a place of worship and outreach for the Karen as an example of Texas Hope 2010, an effort by Texas Baptists to share the gospel with all people in Texas in their own language and cultural context by Easter 2010.

 “By caring for these people, we get to share the gospel. From the time they come, they will help them get settled, get the basic necessities. The church will be able to meet their needs and win some to Christ. And that is why we are excited to be a part of this,” Mosher said.

Because there is still a great need with helping the Karen resettle, Iwami would like to see the churches in the Austin area further minister to families in Texas by helping with job skills and additional help needed for them to function in Texas.

“At some point and time, we would like to see a resource center started to help them with English, show them how to get their kids enrolled in school, find the place to get food stamps and get a job,” Iwami said.

As the Karen church continues to grow, Wooldridge hopes that this will be a model for other churches to use to reach out to the refugee or ethnic groups in the state.

“Our hope is that it can be a model,” Wooldridge said. “There are thousands of Burmese refugees living in Thailand, and many will be coming to the United States. If we can establish a model through the Burmese church, then other churches can come from that.”


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