Refugees, Immigrants Bring New Life to Churches

Feb. 23, 2005

A Feature
By Lesley Crosson*

Htoo Saw Ywa spent two years in a Burmese jail where the government held him, his mother, two brothers and a sister.

He was 12 years old.   

The family was imprisoned because the government was trying to capture his father, an officer with the ethnic Karen minority army fighting the Burmese government for a homeland of their own, Htoo says in a telephone interview.

At 17, he fled Burma to avoid arrest for his involvement in a student demonstration, living for more than a decade in refugee camps along the Burma-Thailand border. He married and fathered three children in the camps. 

“I did not know what would happen to me, but I could not go back into Burma because it was dangerous for me,” Htoo recalls.

Many of the 53,000 victims of persecution, war and repression who last year entered the United States as refugees tell similar stories. And Htoo has much in common with thousands more who came as immigrants or undocumented workers.

Churches in ministry with refugees and immigrants report spiritual growth, heightened awareness of the world around them, and an increased understanding of what it means to be an inclusive community.

“A warm welcome by a church can make a huge difference to refugees who arrive here without family,” says Susan Wersan, a United Methodist Committee on Relief executive for refugee resettlement. “It can be a transforming experience for a congregation.”

New World United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas, sponsored two Liberian families, and the congregation now includes about 20 other Africans from the city’s refugee community, the minister says.

“They have helped us grow, as much as anything we have done for them,” the Rev. Mike Dawson says. “This ministry has transformed the lives of all the people who work in it.  Our church on Sunday morning now looks more like what you think the church, apostolic and universal, ought to look like.”

Htoo’s immediate family was assigned to UMCOR by Church World Service, which works with the U.S. government and several religious denominations and local social service agencies to help resettle refugees. Htoo—whose father died several years ago—is also working to get his sister and a brother into the United States; they are living in a refugee camp on the Thai border.

When the family arrived in North Carolina last November, the members of Resurrection United Methodist Church in Durham sprang into action. They had previous experience with another Burmese family and they furnished and paid for an apartment; they also worked with UMCOR and Lutheran Family Services to help the Htoo family.

Blessings flowed both ways, says the Rev. Larry Bowden, Resurrection pastor.

“It certainly has broadened our world view,” Bowden says. “All of a sudden we’ve become very concerned about conditions in a country that we knew nothing about. It really has helped us realize how connected we are.”
It’s also encouraged him to spread the word.

When the family moved 40 miles away to Raleigh to be closer to a family friend, Bowden seized the opportunity to get yet another church involved.

“It has been a wonderful experience for our congregation,” says the Rev. Susan Harrison, a deacon at Soapstone United Methodist Church in Raleigh. The church helped with housing, transportation, medical care and job hunting.

Htoo, 33, now works at a local retailer and attends services at Soapstone so that he “can remain close to God.”

Dawson recalls a similarly gratifying experience when a family in his affluent, predominantly white congregation began inviting two young Liberian girls to their house for sleepovers with their daughter.

“The girls became great friends,” Dawson says. “When they would come down for children’s sermon, they would all be holding hands, and it was just great to see this wonderful friendship blossom between them.”

Throughout the church, Haitian, Hispanic, Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean congregations that serve the needs of people from these countries are thriving. And even as they go through the process of assimilation, the new Americans are strengthening the fabric of the church by sharing their cultures, hymnals and styles of worship.

Immigrants from mainland China still find their way to New York City’s Chinese United Methodist Church, established in 1966. 

The Rev. James K. Law, senior pastor, says the Chinatown congregation enriches the denomination by its presence. “We are all brothers and sisters, and so including all of us in the life of the church brings a richness and a completeness to the body of Christ.”

For Htoo, baptized in the camps by Seventh Day Adventists, Soapstone United Methodist Church has become a place where he can feel safe and worship in a Christian community.

And for some who welcome people like Htoo, the refugees represent answered prayers.

“I had been praying for Africa for some time and our church was doing the Hope for The Children of Africa” offerings, Dawson says. “One day I realized that these refugee families who are here now are the people I had been praying for without even knowing who they were. To actually see my prayer walk through the door has really opened me and helped me discover what really is important in life.”

*Crosson is a writer living in New York City.

This feature was originally published Feb. 23, 2005.

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