When an older congregation saw the number of congregants in their church decreasing, they prayed for more people to join their church. At the same time, a family from Myanmar prayed for a new start.
By M. Garlinda Burton
In 2004, after fleeing civil unrest and ethnic persecution of their native Myanmar, Naw Beh Bay, her husband, Saw Gay Eh, and their family were living in a refugee camp and praying for a new start.
At the same time, thousands of miles away, in New Bern, N.C., members of Rhems United Methodist Church watched their membership and worship attendance dwindle because they were not attracting young people and the older church members were dying, recalls the Rev. Connie Stutts, pastor. They, too, prayed for a new start. Specifically, they prayed to God to send them children.
Now, 11 years later, Bay and her family are happily relocated to New Bern and have become part of the changing community in a now-multigenerational Rhems United Methodist Church. The first refugee family in the congregation, Bay and Eh have watched church attendance grow to 60-80 people weekly, with those from Karen and Karenni communities in Myanmar often outnumbering long-time White congregants.
Grant supports leadership development
The refugee community has transformed the church and the neighborhood in the eastern North Carolina town so much that–thanks to a grant of $14,650 from the General Commission on Religion and Race CORR Action Fund (funded by the Minority Group Self- Determination Fund) the congregation now offers classes, in English, to help members prepare for the U.S. citizenship test.
The program, “Raising Refugees as Leaders,” also includes coaching to help newcomers master life skills, find jobs, and develop leadership abilities. In fact, a new trustee, an assistant lay leader, and a building committee member, each came to Rhems as recently settled refugees.
Stutts, who was appointed in 2005 to the parish, which includes Rhems UMC and Beech Grove UMC, says the journey toward becoming a blended, intercultural church has been rewarding, if not always easy.
“We decided early that we didn’t want to create two congregations. We wanted to remain as one.” Stutts admits. “We had some [white]members leave because they didn’t want noisy children and other languages in worship.”
“It was challenging, but we stuck with it. And those who stayed have joined together to create something new,” she adds.
That “something new” means that church potluck suppers now include traditional comfort foods from both the southern U.S. and Southeast Asia. Children embrace both blood relations and their surrogate grandparents with hugs. And prayers and Scripture readings during worship are offered in English and Karen.
“This is a rural congregation with a lot of heart,” Stutts says. “Ten years ago, they realized there were no children. They wanted to see Rhems Church live on after them, so we began praying for God to send children to the church. And God answered our prayers.”
Church gains a reputation for ‘openness’
God had help in the form of Helen Dawley, now 86, who then worked with the local Interfaith Refugee Ministry. She asked her congregation at Rhems to consider sponsoring a family from Myanmar. The church gained a reputation for openness. Soon, more Karen refugees settled into the community and found a spiritual home at Rhems. Today, with thanks to the grant, they have also found work, homes, friends, and support through the classes and camaraderie of the church.
“Our church didn’t even have a phone, internet access, or a computer, but we got this grant, bought computers, installed the language software, and now people are engaged in these classes,” says Dawn Daugherty, another Rhems member who coordinates the leadership program.
For the Karen and Karenni members who often find work in local factories, offering classes–and transportation to those classes–around their schedules, as well as providing transportation is critical, Daugherty adds. Daugherty and program assistant Ellen Hargett offer transportation pick-up and drop-off using the church van.
Bay says she and others who are relatively new to the United States appreciate the church being a “community gathering place where our children can come with us for classes, for worship, for study, and to share love.”
She recalls when her friend, Lah Hsay, arrived in New Bern from a refugee camp in Thailand only to have her husband and, later, her sister die in traffic accidents. Left with four children to raise alone, Hsay “was embraced by the members at Rhems,” Bay says.
“Pastor Connie and the whole church really rallied around Lah, and surround her with love. We grieved with her and helped her learn to support herself and her family,” Bay adds. “She is doing well.”
For Stutts, who is in her tenth year as Rhems’ pastor, the transformation has been personal as well as communal. In 2013, she travelled to Myanmar to get of sense of her new congregants’ cultures and struggles. Bay arranged for her to meet health-care workers, settlement camp workers, educators, and church leaders. Stutts also visited a refugee camp in Maesot where 40,000 people live. She also met Bishop Zothan Mawai of The Methodist Church of the Union of Myanmar. He, in turn, preached at Rhems during a during a visit to the U.S. in 2014.
To create authentic intercultural church ‘everyone has to change’
If your congregation is considering sponsoring or doing ministry with refugees:
- Work with an established resettlement agency. Ask the best ways you can offer support.
- Learn all you can about the cultures of those you serve. Research, contact the General Board of Ministries, or a local college or university for more information.
- Know what services are provided in your communities, including public transportation, departments of family and children (or social) services, legal assistance, English classes, citizenship classes.
- Work directly with public schools. In fact, if you are planning to work with families, consider having someone be an advocate for/supportor of refugee children at the schools, which are often overwhelmed and under-resourced for teaching children from other nations.
- “Cast a vision of unity,” says Pastor Connie Stutts. “We started with the idea that we were going to open our doors to all people, rather than creating a separate ministry. Start with the idea that you are seeking to do God’s will and increase the number of people who serve Christ in this place.”
- Pray hard and often, Stutts advises. “Any new venture like this must be steeped in prayer, because the church is not going to stay the same. This is not a ministry to make everyone become like you; this is stepping out on faith as God does something new. That requires prayer!”