The Rev. William Englund at St. Paul’s First Baptist Church faces a smattering of gray-haired longtime members — and pew upon pew of Karen families. Projected on the walls behind him are the words to “Great is Thy Faithfulness” in English and Karen. As the congregation picks up the hymn, the two languages blend in a hopeful harmony.
Refugees from Myanmar brought new vitality to First Baptist and other east metro churches. Churches started Karen-language services, bought Bibles in Karen and began serving food after Sunday worship because some Karen fast until taking communion. They’ve helped with everything from job hunts to citizenship applications, stepping in when federal government support for new refugees tapers off.
In recent years, Karen worshipers have ventured out to start new churches, creating sometimes wrenching departures. By Englund’s count, former First Baptist members branched off and started six congregations — but many stayed. He expected to see familiar scenes in a new Hollywood movie called “All Saints,” about Karen refugees saving a church in rural Tennessee.
“We wouldn’t be around without them,” he said. “Financially and spiritually, the Karen have been a blessing to us.”
Since 2000, more than 10,000 Karen refugees have resettled in Minnesota — the largest community outside of Southeast Asia. Although most Karen are Buddhist in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, a majority of those resettled here are Christian, and faith looms large in their daily lives.
The first Karen family showed up at St. Paul’s Messiah Episcopal Church a decade ago after their daughter found the church by searching the Yellow Pages. By December 2007, more families arrived — and treated the congregation to “Silent Night” in Karen after the Christmas Eve service.
Music reassured Mya Zu Aung she was in the right place under Messiah’s towering wood ceilings. When the congregation started singing, she flashed back to the one-room Thai refugee camp church with bamboo walls and a tarp roof.
“We didn’t know how to sing in English, but the notes are the same,” she said.
A few of Minnesota’s earliest Karen families discovered First Baptist in downtown St. Paul, founded 170 years ago by Harriet Bishop, a devotee of the Baptist missionary in Burma who started converting the Karen. Word spread quickly. For four months, the church hosted 16 Karen refugees on cots in its basement Sunday school classrooms.
At “first a trickle and then a torrent” of new Karen members arrived, Englund says. Some longtime members struggled with the changes: cooking smells wafting from the basement, children racing in the aisles during the service.
At the Church of St. Bernard, some parishioners were ambivalent about the Karenni worshipers.
“Father, can’t you make the children quiet down?” some asked the Rev. Michael Anderson, its priest at the time.
“Don’t you realize how wonderful it is to have this noise?” he replied. “This is the noise of our future.”
The Karenni are a distinct, majority-Catholic ethnic group that has resettled here in smaller numbers. Anderson used to shuttle them to Sunday mass in his Ford Taurus. One morning, after eight runs, he was late for mass, and the church hired yellow school buses.
At the time, St. Bernard, on St. Paul’s North End, was bracing for possible closure. Parish rolls had shrunk to several hundred from a high of more than 1,000. The parish school had just closed. Anderson credits the Karenni, now half of registered parishioners, with saving the church.
At First Baptist, three-quarters of those who attend the Sunday services are Karen. At Messiah, about 40 percent of 400 members are Karen, and attendance in Sunday school has tripled.
The St. Paul congregations came to embrace the newcomers.
At First Baptist’s recent Sunday service, Associate Pastor Saul Lu interpreted Englund’s opening remarks about the solar eclipse into Karen and later read out of Genesis in Karen. The church also hosts separate services in Karen and Burmese later on Sunday. It celebrates “Sweet December” — “Those two words were never put together in Minnesota,” Englund says — a Karen holiday that kicks off preparations for Christmas.
When Messiah’s leadership realized the Karen fast until communion, they started serving snacks after the Sunday service to keep families mingling. With a 2011 grant, Messiah bought Bibles in Karen and set up a headphone system to translate its Sunday service.
For four years, St. Bernard’s rectory served as transitional housing for Karenni refugees. The church hired two staffers to make doctor’s appointments, offer rides, shop for cars and more. The Rev. Joseph Kureh, from Myanmar, leads mass in Karenni.
Spaces of their own
Now the Karen are starting new churches. Nay Htoo, a former First Baptist member, says some wanted services wholly in Karen or the more leisurely pace of worship in Asia, where it could take up most of Sunday.
Karen Organization of Minnesota co-executive director Eh Tha Khu says refugee camp pastors are sometimes eager to lead a congregation again rather than sit in the pews. But ultimately, he says, it comes down to a Karen saying that translates roughly as, “We need to write our own history.”
The association counts more than a dozen all-Karen congregations, of which several own church buildings. Two Karen Buddhist temples have opened as well.
Nay Htoo and Eh Tha Khu worship at Ebenezer Karen Baptist Church, which opened last year in Maplewood. Many of its 270 members saved toward the $400,000 down payment for a vacant industrial space for years.
Some of the partings have been tough. When Messiah members went on to start St. John’s Anglican Mission in 2014, “It was a difficult moment: losing some of your dear, dear friends,” said Janice Dames, a longtime member.
Church leaders say some who stayed felt that belonging to a bilingual church was crucial to integration. At First Baptist, Karen member Daphne Tun Baw’s son now attends Ebenezer. But she says she is not going anywhere.
The founder of a refugee camp school that once hosted actor Angelina Jolie, Tun Baw, 97, catches both the English and Karen services. In between, she gabs with the “Sunday school club” of Karen grandmas while five grandkids and great-grandkids attend class.
Englund says his church and the breakaway congregations maintain amicable relationships. Their choirs had a joint performance this month.
“I’ve learned what community looks like,” he said. “For the Karen, it’s never I. It’s always we.”
Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781