Like many Christians moving to a new town, Say Wah Htoo made finding a new place to worship a top priority. So one Sunday morning shortly after arriving in Utica, New York, she attended a nearby church. It had familiar theology, a few songs she knew, and the obligatory smiles and handshakes after the service.
But Htoo (pronounced "Too") needed more. She had been raised in a Christian home deep in the jungles of Myanmar (Burma), a member of the Karen people, persecuted by a brutal regime. Her perilous escape from Myanmar brought her to central New York State through a refugee resettlement program.
Walking through the ornate doors of Tabernacle Baptist Church, she was a penniless, war-scarred single mother. Her faith had taken a severe beating during her travails.
"When I arrive here, I am safe. Everything is safe," Htoo explains. "I got free when I arrived here."
Tabernacle's members swung into action when Htoo showed up. On a typical Sunday, 300 people attend, and nearly one-third of them are Karen refugees. A welcoming committee delivered a free rice cooker to her apartment. They offered to drive her to job interviews and met many other day-to-day needs. This American Baptist congregation's outreach has become so renowned that the denomination holds up Tabernacle as a national role model. Tabernacle volunteer Gwen Deragon says, "God had a reason to put the Karen here. They needed a place to go, and we needed them."
Tabernacle's church spire is an established fixture in the skyline of Utica, once bustling with blue-collar, manufacturing jobs. But the mills started closing in the years after World War II, and Tabernacle's fortunes fell with those of the surrounding community. In 1960, Utica's population peaked at 100,000 and then ...