Episcopal Church Welcomes 200 Youth From 30 Karen Congregations
Over 200 youth from thirty (30) Karen congregations in various dioceses gathered for the annual “America Karen Episcopal Youth Weekend” last July 4-6, 2019 held at All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Tennessee.
Keynoting as Asiamerica Missioner of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara quoted St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, “You are no longer strangers and exiles but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundations of apostles and prophets, Christ Himself being the cornerstone.”
The Karens are tribal people who lived primarily in the Kayhin States south of Myanmar and west of Thailand. Many of them fled the wars in Southeast Asia and the religious persecution in their home country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and resettled in the United States as refugees and migrant workers.
Many of them have now become American citizens and permanent residents and are finding their place in their adopted country.
The first and largest Karen congregation practically saved the declining All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna from closing down in 2008. At first, several Karen families who were seasoned farmers in Myanmar offered to farm the 16 acres of farmlands owned by the church.
When they began growing spinach and a variety of other vegetables, many other Karen refugees in the area joined in and soon they became a growing community helping one another in meeting social, financial and spiritual needs.
Under the leadership of the rector, the Rev. Michael Spurlock and the support of Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt, the Anglo remnants of All Saints embraced the Karen Community and the rest is history. What began as an “agricultural journey” of a marginalized people turned out to be a holistic new life to the Karen refugees as well as a spiritual resurrection to the parish. The life and ministry of the Reverend Spurlock with and among the Karen people became the subject of a Hollywood movie, “All Saints.”
The growth of the Karen congregation in Smyrna also became a turning point for other Karen refugees to seek spiritual shelter and home in the Episcopal Church. Karen Americans affiliated with Episcopal parishes in Central New York, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas, Indiana, and Nebraska.
In partnership with the Asiamerica Ministries Office of the Episcopal Church Center, the current vicar of All Saints, the Rev. Robert Rhea, invited the Rt. Rev. John Wilme, a retired Karen bishop from the Diocese of Tuongo in the Anglican Church of Myanmar to conduct catechetical and pastoral visits among the Karen diaspora in the United States.
Together, they are working to develop leaders from among these Karen-USA congregations in consultation with their respective dioceses.
In challenging the Karen Youth, Missioner Vergara said, “I call upon you, young friends, to move from being ‘Karens in America’ to becoming “Karen Americans” and take your place in the multiracial, multicultural American Church and Society.”
“The Karens in America are here only in body. Their minds and their spirits are still in Burma or Myanmar. They are here to survive, to work, to earn money but their eyes are still set in their home country. They will not get involved with the affairs of America or be concerned with its future because, in their minds, the USA is not really their country.”
“In contrast, Karen Americans consider themselves as new but true Americans. Even as they acknowledge their Karen heritage and Burma or Myanmar as their home country, they will fully embrace America as their adopted country. They will bloom where they are now planted. They will join to raise their voices against any injustice that affect them and their fellow Americans and they will be concerned with the future of this country and this Church.”
The Karen Episcopal Youth also pledged to follow a rule of life consisted with the “Jesus Movement” and pray for the revival of the Church in America.