Refugees and the Rural Church
When the Office of Field Education announced that I would be serving a summer field placement at a rural church with a large population of refugees from Myanmar, I was both excited and terrified. I was excited for a unique opportunity, but I feared that I lacked the ability to connect with the refugees. I was unsure that I would be able to minister to the community effectively because I had limited experience in multi-cultural context. I arrived at Rhems UMC insecure, but I left Rhems UMC transformed.
The history of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a rocky one. This country is located in Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand to the southeast and China to the northeast. The country is home to 135 different ethnic groups. In 1813 Adoniram Judson, a Baptist missionary, became the first missionary to bring the gospel to the country. In 1850 the first Methodist missionaries arrived. The proclamation of the gospel has led to a thriving Christian community in Myanmar. In 1948, the country received their independence from Great Britain. The largest ethnic group, the Burmese, stepped into the vacuum left by the British government and took control of the country. The Burmese initiated land grab campaigns, marching into villages in order to take control of the land. In 1949, a civil war broke out between the other ethnic groups and the Burmese army. The Burmese army killed villagers and burned the villages to the ground. Survivors from these attacks fled to refugee camps, such as the Mae La Camp in Thailand. Many children can narrate horrific stories of soldiers entering their village and shooting their family members before their eyes. In 2011 a cease-fire treaty was reached, but the conflict is far from over. There are between 30,000-40,000 people living in the Mae La Camp. Refugees in this camp experience cramped living conditions while waiting for passage to the United States. Refugees seek passage to the United States in the hopes of creating a new life for themselves and their families. Refugees are processed through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an organization whose mission is to re-settle refugees. A branch of this agency exists in New Bern. As a result hundreds of refugees, mostly from the Karen and Kareni tribes in Myanmar, re-settled there. The deep, unwavering faith of the Karen and Kareni people that has sustained them through immense suffering and hardship.
The painful history of these peoples has intersected with the history of Rhems UMC, a small but faithful rural. The families in this church have lost their children to the job market in the cities. This migration caused the church to find itself in a situation where it was growing older. The church held a belief that there was no one to whom they could entrust the future of the faith community. Feeling lost, a group of women in the congregation came together to pray daily that God would send them children. The answer they received was unexpected. Before long, Karen and Kareni refugee families began attending Rhems. Drawn to the small church atmosphere, the refugees began spreading the word, and more and more refugees began attending, bringing their children along with them. Their presence initially caused great tension in the church. But, the church came to realization that the presence of these Karen and Kareni families was the work of the Holy Spirit answering their prayers. The church opened its mind, its heart, and its door to the strangers among them, whom they now recognize as friends. More than that, they welcomed their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Church became a place where English, Karen, and Kareni worship together.
They offer praise to the Triune God who has knit them together in loving, mutual relationship. The church with different backgrounds became one body of Christ.
English families offer Sunday School classes for the refugee adults and children. They also offer ESL classes, teaching refugee families English. The previous members of the church also work closely with the Interfaith Refugee Ministry in downtown New Bern to provide financial, housing, educational, medical and cultural resources for the refugees’ transition into American life. The Karen and Kareni families offer their own witness to the work of God in the midst of their difficult lives by encouraging, teaching, and inspiring the church members. Their presence and participation in the life of the Rhems community has expanded the church’s vision of God’s kingdom.
Jesus says in Matthew 25:35, 40 “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” This passage is more than just a call for the church to open its doors to those who are different so that they may experience the love of Christ, although this is certainly true. This passage is also an invitation to the church to open its doors to those who are different so that Christ may transform the church that opens the door!
I went down to New Bern thinking that I was going to open myself up to the opportunity to minister to persons of a different ethnic background. What I didn’t realize is that in opening myself up to the opportunity, I was going to be ministered to!
I was shown powerful hospitality when I was invited to a birthday party for one of the Karen members. The whole Karen membership from Rhems was present at this party, and they held a worship service of song, Scripture reading, prayer, and giving thanks to God for the life of the birthday boy and for God’s providence in his life. Then they brought out all the food and set it down in the open floor, as was their custom, and they proceeded to fix my plate. I sat and shared a meal with them, listening to them talking and laughing – just enjoying being together. In being present with them, I saw Christ in them. They taught me about radical hospitality. Through their strong faith, Christ taught me something about making yourself open and vulnerable in a world of violence, hate, and discrimination. They came from a world of violence and hate, and yet they had the deep faith in Christ to open their door to me, a stranger! Imagine that…
As products of American society, many of us live such insular lives. But there are refugees among us, many of them in rural areas of North Carolina. They need our help as they struggle to adjust to life in America. At the same time, we, the rural church, need their help. We need them to breathe new life into our concept of what it means to be the church participating in God’s mission in the world. The Rural Church is uniquely placed as the potential breeding ground for loving relationships between American-born persons and refugees characterized by mutual learning and sharing. The Rural Church has the opportunity to be the arms of Christ that welcomes the stranger into its midst, while simultaneously allowing itself to be the house guests whose feet Christ washes. God calls us into a way of living that destroys boundaries of male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, American and refugee. The Rural Church is called to embody that way of living, so that all of us may be drawn up more and more into the life of God.
The witness of Rhems UMC invites us, rural pastors, to reflect our respective ministries: What can we do to raise awareness within our congregations about the circumstances of refugees? How might we begin to have conversations in our churches that name the fears, concerns, and prejudices about welcoming the stranger? What Scriptural and theological work needs to be done in our churches to cultivate an evangelistic ministry that includes welcoming the stranger and being open to the Holy Spirit’s transformative work within that interaction?
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow