TENNESSEE: Myanmar refugees bring Advent story alive for rural church

December 19, 2008

A rural church in Smyrna, Tennessee has grown both spiritually and numerically since welcoming 70 Myanmar refugees into its fold.

"It's a classic example of the Advent story," said Michael Williams, incoming senior warden at All Saints, Smyrna, Tennessee. "We could not find God, but God found us. In this case, he appeared to us in the form of 70 people who came from Myanmar."

Before the refugees arrived in central Tennessee, the Rev. Michael Spurlock, All Saints rector, was discouraged about the future of the parish, which was struggling to make its mortgage payments.

"We were about to lose everything that meant church and about to have to pack up and leave," Spurlock said.

The Karen -- political refugees from a hilly region in eastern Myanmar and western Thailand -- have more than doubled average Sunday attendance at All Saints from 45 to around 100. At a November confirmation service, at which both Karen and English were spoken, 11 youth and adults were confirmed and one person was received with 95 in attendance. Plans are underway for more combined services.

A minority in Myanmar, the Karen are considered the lowest of the low, especially if they are Christian. Most Christian Karen are Anglican, a legacy from England's 19th century involvement in Myanmar, what they refer to as Burma.

The refugees, who had been farmers before settling in the United States, helped a local volunteer dairy farmer plow some of the land surrounding All Saints. Parishioners helped the Karen plant vegetables, chili peppers and beans native to Myanmar. By the end of the summer, 20,000 pounds of produce had been raised. About 10 percent of that went to the refugees, and the rest was sold locally or donated to food pantries.

Since then, a cotton farmer from Missouri whom Spurlock serendipitously met while hiking, has promised water storage equipment. The parish has received a grant to buy a used tractor and water pump. And a blog has been launched.

All Saints' mortgage is being paid and the parish is funding outreach projects. "We are not a survival mode church any more," said Williams. "We are a mission-focused church."

Each Sunday, the church holds two worship services: one in English and one in Karen. One of the refugees, the Rev. Thomas Bu Christ, an Anglican priest, conducts the service in Karen, using a prayer book translated from the 1662 English version. Hymns are sung in Karen and set to English tunes. When Spurlock and other English-speakers attend, he said, they learn "how [the Karen-speakers] feel when they come to our service. I really have to concentrate to know what's going on."

A new dream is growing in which working on the farm becomes part of a retreat experience that balances prayer with manual labor in the Benedictine tradition. Already, the Canterbury Club from Tennessee Tech helped clear a field.

All Saints, it seems, was rescued by coming to the aid of others. Reflecting on his plans for his Christmas Eve sermon, Spurlock mused, "We don't get to choose who comes to our door, but we do get to choose how we treat them once they're there. If God sends them, can you turn them away? We have to be willing to care for the vulnerable."

--The Rev. Lisa B. Hamilton is correspondent for Provinces I, II, III and IV. She is based in Sandisfield, Massachusetts and Venice, Florida.