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."
The situation in Utica is ideal for refugees. Cheap housing and abundant low-wage jobs mean newcomers quickly find places to live and work. Utica's population is now around 60,000, including 8,000 former refugees.
Officially, refugees are persons displaced from their home countries because they were caught in armed conflict or were at risk of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or political opinions. Every year, the U.S. accepts up to 70,000 of the 14 million refugees worldwide and resettles them, legally and permanently, across the nation.
Ray Bakke, head of the Bakke Graduate University of Ministry in Seattle, has spent his career developing a theology of urban ministry and immigrant outreach. He says in the Bible, refugees prove to be a blessing to their host nationsone example is Egypt, where Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus after Herod's threats.
"We ought to be saying, 'They're coming to restore our faith,' and rejoice," Bakke says.
Bakke points to Psalm 107 as a promise of divine care for refugees: "[T]hey cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle."
Beginning with Boat People
After the Vietnam War, a group of Utica citizens, including leading pastors, were deeply moved by the suffering of Southeast Asians and by their valiant efforts to survive and flee the war.
The group decided to help Asian refugees migrate to Utica and created the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR). This non-sectarian organization partners with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which resettles immigrants nationwide. Much of the credit for MVRCR goes to Peter Vogelaar, executive director. The center offers a wide spectrum of services to help refugees adjust to American life. It receives $1.5 million annually in federal aid.
Last summer, about 40 recent immigrants crammed themselves into an MVRCR classroom without air conditioning. Cambodian monks sat in saffron robes. Somali Muslim women were draped in yards of boldly patterned cotton. Pentecostals from Belarus were outfitted in conservative, European-style attire.
Chris DeSanctis, a local bank executive, taught them the fundamentals of American life, such as the importance of establishing a credit history. Her lesson was translated into four languages. Many refugees had lost money in homeland banks, so they typically carried cash. But they were curious about the credit card offers they kept getting in the mail.
These programs are one reason the refugee center succeeds in integrating immigrants into Utica's life. If people build a credit history, they can eventually buy a home. If they own homes, they tend to fix up their houses and yards, so they buy supplies at the local hardware store. At some point, they may hire a local plumber. They pay property taxes, so they may also have an interest in the school board and voting and U.S. citizenship. In short, they invest in the community.
Utica's diverse faith community forms another pillar of support for refugees. Mosques, temples, and churches address the physical and spiritual needs of refugees. Up to 10 percent of Utica may be Muslim, due to the influx of Bosnian refugees. The local mosque is one of the most ethnically varied in the nation.
The Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist churches are teeming. A Slavic Pentecostal church has a new building on the edge of town, filled with 1,000 members who fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union.
Vogelaar says the benefits of religious harmony in Utica may ripple beyond the town's borders. "We can say Christians and Muslims don't need to be fighting. We don't need to vilify each other."
"Many people perceive refugees to be a problem people," Vogelaar says. "But they have overcome problems. They are survivors."
Urbanologist Bakke says Christian hosts and migrants alike need to stop looking at refugees as victims who have nothing to contribute.
"God's people tend to think of themselves as victims, but the motif of Scripture is they're on mission," Bakke says.
He encourages new immigrants and refugees to live out Jeremiah 29:7: "Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
Bakke says the home front is a new mission field. "Churches at home must begin to model with integrity that which they have sent missionaries abroad to do. By sending them abroad in the first place, the church was confessing a transcultural commitment to the oneness of Jesus Christ."
Caruana, pastor at Tabernacle Baptist, has empathy for locals who resist deep involvement in resettlement outreach. Longtime church members admit to being uncomfortable with unfamiliar people.
Nevertheless, his church contributes heavily to the physical needs of refugees and recruits churches across the state to adopt a refugee ministry as well. The result is a powerful transformation across the board.
"The Karen on the whole are probably more sacrificial in their giving patterns than many, not all, but many of our long-term American friends," Caruana says.
"The Karen also bring a whole different set of gifts with them. They've opened up the church to a world beyond itself, which is an incredible gift."
Often, Karen families send funds to struggling relatives in Asia with little means of subsistence. One Karen family with two low-skilled workers and three children has managed to buy a home and send thousands of dollars to Asia to build a church, all within five years.
In Myanmar, Christians have long functioned under their own leadership. So finding ways to integrate Burmese Christians into Western churches poses a great challenge.
Along the modern Myanmar-Thailand border, where refugees hide, "You will find Bible schools, you will find churches, you will find pastors being trained and being ordained and doing ministry and being sent out into communities," Caruana says.
In the end, refugee ministry success comes down to Americans who are willing to reach out. Tom Deragon, a lay leader at Tabernacle Baptist, provides a powerful example.
An American Indian, Deragon suffered as a child under government-mandated assimilation. But Deragon also received foster care from devout believers whose faithful words and deeds drew him toward Christian faith. To him, the current wave of refugees is no different from waves of previous generationsbringing with it a mix of good people and daunting challenges.
Tom Deragon and his wife, Gwen, found they could help most by focusing on one family at a time. Their assistance tends to involve lots of late-night phone calls and emergency plumbing projects. But the investment has its rewards. The first Karen baby born in Utica was named Tom.
No Easy Button
Not all refugees live happily ever after. Down the street from Tabernacle is Trinity Lutheran Church. This congregation has also invested much time, talent, and treasure into refugee outreach.
Lutherans created a Bible study at the home of John Kweh especially for African believers. Kweh and his family of 14 lived in a large house in need of repair. Originally from Liberia, they had fled certain death in civil war.
Now safe from gunfire, John's son Juty, 23, has become discouraged by the trap of materialism. "America is kind
of bittersweet," Juty Kweh told CT in an August interview. "In Africa, we lived without things. But at least we lived freely. No bills! What we do now is so tedious."
Last summer, John, Juty, and two other sons, Samson and Phillip, drove an hour or more each way to work a night shift. Their top prayer request at the time was for jobs close to home.
Then, tragically, a few weeks after the Kwehs were interviewed by CT, they were involved in a horrific crash during their commute. Three peopleJuty, Samson, and another friendlost their lives. Badly injured, John and Phillip were hospitalized for months.
This devastating loss was magnified for surviving family members who realized that the deceased had survived the horrors of ethnic cleansing only to die in an accident.
But the event galvanized all of Utica. Vogelaar says, "Through the tragedy, the refugee community and the church community are coming together to support this family." It was a raw reminder of life's fragility.
God Didn't Forget
Around 1980, when Say Wah Htoo was nine years old, marauding government forces attacked her village of Karen rice farmers. Their church and all the homes were burned. Her family scattered to the four winds.
She followed her father, a middle-school teacher, to a rebel camp of the Karen National Liberation Army. She managed to attend a makeshift school there and took classes in Bible, mathand combat. She joined the army at age 15. Two years later, her father died in battle. Government forces slaughtered thousands and forced the rest to flee to the jungle wasteland between Myanmar and Thailand.
Htoo joined the exodus and snuck into Bangkok, hoping for a chance to further her education. But the big city got the best of the Christian girl from a backwater village. Without documentation or means of support, she lived in persistent fear of arrest and deportation. Soon, she became one of the millions of Asian women trapped in sexual exploitation.
"I arrived in Bangkok, and it's a big city, and I've never been in the big city," she explains. "That's why I didn't know anything. I can do nothing. I tried to continue my education, and I found one guy, and he said he's going to help me."
"But he lied to me, and he persuaded me, and heI don't know how to say thathe has his wife and his children, but he has me like a wife."
Htoo hangs her head and softly weeps. "I have to live with him, and I got a baby."
Htoo remained in touch with surviving family members in Burma. But they were scandalized by the news of her out-of-wedlock child. Htoo says, "Every night, every day, I prayed to God to give me a better life."
Somehow, Htoo and her daughter escaped from the man's house. She found people to help her apply for asylum through the United Nations.
"I knew that American country is a big country," Htoo says. "That's why I believed that maybe my daughter can go to school, and it will be good for her education and her life."
Eventually, U.S. officials took her case. In time, she and her daughter landed in Tabernacle church in Utica. Today, Htoo has an apartment and a minimum-wage job, and through Utica's Christian community, she is aware that a merciful God will meet her deepest needs for forgiveness and security.
Poe Kee, a Karen single man, immigrated to the United States about the same time that Htoo did. With her aunt in Utica acting as a traditional Karen matchmaker, Po Kee married Htoo within six months. They met the week of their wedding and were never alone together until their wedding night. Theirs was the first Karen wedding at Tabernacle. Tom Deragon walked the bride down the aisle.
Htoo turns giddy when talking about Po Kee. Now married five years, they have two daughters in addition to Htoo's first child, Pa Suda.
"Po Kee accepts Pa Suda like a daughter, and he loves her like a daughter," says Htoo. "He never jokes about my life before."
But last year, Po Kee was diagnosed with leukemia. Htoo wept and doted over him at the hospital. At home, he lay silently in her lap for hours on end. Miraculously, the cancer has now gone into remissionafter just one round of chemotherapy.
"When I lived in Bangkok, Thailand," Htoo says, "I felt problems. I wanted to blame God. I said, 'God is not taking care of me.' " She felt kinship with the biblical Josepha victim of injustice in a foreign land.
But like Joseph, Htoo discovered God had not abandoned her. "Later, I humbled myself, and I knew that God planned everything for my good."
For generations, residents of Utica had christened their troubled town "the city that God forgot." But Utica's immigrant Christians are writing new chapters in the city's history about how God didn't forget themone resettled life at a time.
Pastor Caruana says, "We have children in this congregation, all of them growing up thinking that it is absolutely and perfectly normal to be part of a church where there are people from literally around the worldtogether."
Denise McGill is assistant professor of visual journalism at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
How to Help Refugees
Here is a list of online resources with information about refugees and refugee resettlement ministry.
News and Information
Church World Service (www.churchworldservice.org)
Exodus World Service (www.e-w-s.org)
International Rescue Committee (www.theirc.org)
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (www.lirs.org)
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org/mrs)
World Relief (www.wr.org)
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A photo essay, also by Denise McGill, accompanied this article.
The Utica Observer-Dispatch has a collection of articles on the refugees resettled there.
The Baroness Cox wrote about the situation of the Karen in 'The Homeless Church of Myanmar'
Other articles about refugees include:
Does Darfur Have a Prayer? | Genocide in western Sudan proves nearly impossible to stop. (December 13, 2006)
'They Know We Are Christians' | Lebanese Christian compassion impresses Muslims during bloody conflict. (September 28, 2006)
Homeland Security's Catch-22 for Exiles | 'Ridiculous' interpretation of law bars thousands. (May 1, 2006)
Border Crackdown | Government seeks to stamp out North Korea refugee problem. (April 1, 2004)
Churches Demolished at Sudanese Refugee Camp | Bulldozers raze prayer centers as part of government re-planning exercise. (December 1, 2003)
On The Run from Police, Iranian Christian Survives Church Attack | Fleeing persecution with no passport, refugee witnesses last week's grenade murders in Pakistan (March 1, 2002)
Books & Culture Corner: Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugeesand the church in Iran. (January 1, 2002)
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