|Slide Show: Utica's Refugees
The Town that Loves Refugees
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 began to shrink.
Tabernacle's wood-beamed sanctuary started to resemble an empty ark turned upside down. Members considered rebuilding in the surrounding suburbs, but they prayerfully decided to stay downtown and minister to the remnant community there. When the first Karen family showed up in 1999, welcoming them to Utica seemed a natural way to help stem the city's 40 percent population loss.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Karen, a Burmese hill-tribe people numbering 7 million, suffer greatly as they fight for independence. Abuses include "executions, rape, torture, the forced relocation of entire villages, and forced labor," Human Rights Watch reported. Congress has imposed its strictest sanctions against Myanmar for abuses including violations of religious freedom and human trafficking. At least 30 percent of the Karen in Burma and Thailand are Christians.
As Tabernacle's congregation researched the Karens' situation, they uncovered an unusual story. In 1812, the first Protestant missionaries ever sent from the United States went to Burma. From Burma, Adoniram Judson wrote home asking for help. In 1828, Tabernacle Baptist Church in Utica sent printer Cephas Bennett and his family.
For more than a century, Tabernacle had at least one church member serving in Burma, many in direct ministry to the Karen. But generations passed, and missionaries retired and passed away. The connection was all but forgotten.
Today, Tabernacle's pastor Mark Caruana says, "Distant cousins are being reunited with us. We marveled at the providence of God. Who would have thought that in Utica, New York, Americans would find this long-lost connection with people halfway around the world?"
Tabernacle's outreach to the Karen mirrors the entire city of Utica's outreach to refugees from around the world. People from 31 countries have made harrowing journeys to Utica, a town where bumper stickers once read, "Last one out of Utica, please turn out the lights."