By: Amanda Willis
A group of East St. Paul Karen refugee families were searching for a new church home when they knocked on Arlington Hills United Methodist Church’s doors.
What started out as a handful of families attending worship about two months ago has now grown to more than 20 families participating in the life of the Maplewood church—and as a result, the congregation’s Sunday School has doubled in size.
“We have brothers and sisters who have come to our door even though there is a huge language barrier on both sides, but we’ve been working it out,” said Rev. Tom Biatek, pastor of Arlington Hills UMC.
The Karen are an ethnic group from the mountainous border regions of Burma and Thailand. In order to provide a meaningful experience for the newcomers, the Karen language is now being integrated into worship through music, a scripture reading, and a shorter version of the sermon. The church is looking into grants that could provide headsets to those wishing to hear the entire service in Karen.
The new families have brought a sense of excitement and new energy to the church, especially through the music they have introduced. The Karen group has its own worship leaders—a husband and wife team that speaks both Karen and English. They have been instrumental in translating the sermons and communicating with the English-speaking church members.
Biatek believes that the reason the families have integrated into the church community so quickly is because of the level of trust, love, and hospitality that has been extended in the past few months.
“That means going out to lunch, talking openly, listening to what their needs are, and having the Bible scripture read in Karen means an awful lot,” he said.
Christian values are important to the Karen families as their children assimilate into a new culture. They sought out a church with a good support system in part so their children have strong role models and guiding principles.
Arlington Hills is no stranger to helping the growing Karen refugee population in its neighborhood. The church has sponsored refugee families in the past and has a community garden for community members to grow vegetables and socialize. When the new families saw these other things the church had been doing, trust was built and the church was seen as approachable.
“It’s the face of the idea that we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world that has come to us,” said Catherine Solheim, a member of the church’s mission team.
Not all of the families arriving in Minnesota are coming from refugee camps. A large percentage of the Karen people moving here are considered secondary migrants. They resettled in other states but decided to move because of the support system here. There is no resettlement program for them to go through so many rely on other Karen families for help.
The Karen community attending Arlington Hills has established a welcoming ministry. They provide a starter kit (including things like towels, a winter coat, and other items that are necessary right away) to other refugees. Arlington Hills is working with the group to figure out how to further support that mission.
Biatek said the new partnership is growing organically. The congregation has been open and welcoming as more and more refugees come to church. As relationships deepen and both groups look ahead, any next steps will be taken together to ensure that everyone is learning and growing from the experience.
At this point, Biatek isn’t sure whether that will eventually mean separate worship times, a completely integrated worship experience, or helping the group find its own space. But the congregation fully intends to continue to nurture and embrace this opportunity to welcome strangers and become their friends.
“They are our neighbors, they live in East St. Paul, and they have a hunger to worship and serve,” Solheim said.
Amanda Willis is communications associate for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church