They’ve traveled here for homecoming, this early September morning, in their used cars, shining white pickups and Sunday best, parents leading by hand their children and elders across the damp grass and up the steps of the small country church.
The latecomers wipe the morning dew off their shoes and walk through the red double doors, passing one by one beneath the sign that reads, “Enter as a stranger, leave as a friend.”
The pews are filled by now, so the members draw in close against the walls, greeting each other in languages foreign and familiar, “God bless you. God bless you.”
They’ve joined together today to enact a uniquely Baptist, and even more uniquely Southern tradition, a celebration of memories past and of new beginnings. For many of those gathered here, those memories stretch back further than the local farmland and rivers, back across decades and oceans to their home country of Burma and the refugee camps where entire generations of their families were born and raised.
Many of them arrived in Craven County by night, 10 years ago or last week, climbing from planes and walking, alone or with loved ones, into the vast strangeness of American life.
And here they made their homes. And here, at Rhems United Methodist Church, they found a family.
When the first Karen (pronounced Kah-REN) refugees arrived in North Carolina 13 years ago, it’s unlikely they saw themselves as pioneers of a new community. Most were simply seeking escape from the region’s seemingly endless civil war.
The Karens are among various Burmese ethnic groups that have fought for their own independent states in a series of conflicts that date back to 1948, when the country gained independence from Britain. Most Karen people are subsistence farmers, living in small mountain villages, growing rice and vegetables and raising animals.
Due to the ongoing civil war, approximately 140,000 Karen currently live in refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border.
Though they traditionally practice Buddhism, approximately 15 percent identify as Christians, likely due to the influence of 19th century British missionaries.
The first Karens to resettle in New Bern, Ye Win and his wife, pregnant at the time with their first child, arrived from their former home in a United Nations refugee camp in 2004. They were seeking a better life for their young family, one that didn’t include killings, torture, landmines and forced labor by Burma’s military regime.
Luckily, they found Helen Dawley, a retired teacher who had recently arrived in New Bern from her home state of Florida. Dawley was a member of Rhems United Methodist and also worked with Interfaith Refugee Ministry, a local nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in the New Bern/Craven County area.
Dawley assisted Ye Win and his wife with transportation and other needs, helping them get on their feet in their adopted homeland.
“I had time and a car, so that’s how I helped” says Dawley, who recently celebrated her 91st birthday.
After another Karen family arrived several months later, Dawley convinced the church’s United Methodist Women’s group to sponsor the refugees.
Though Dawley saw her service to the Karen as an expression of her religious faith, she also recognized, in their commitment to community and family, a way to revitalize her house of worship.
Ask any of the senior members of the congregation and they’ll tell you: In the early 2000s, Rhems United Methodist was a dying church.
“We were averaging 30 to 35 worshipers, the average age was probably 75-80. Maybe one or two young people but mostly older people, so we were struggling,” says Rev. Connie Stutts, who came to the church at roughly the same time the first Karen refugees began arriving in New Bern.
In response to the church’s dwindling membership, the congregation began praying for a new generation of worshipers to rejuvenate its weekly services. Most of all, they prayed for children.
Those petitions were partially answered through Ye Win and his wife, whose child was baptized in the church in 2005.
Then, in 2006, the U.S. made a decision to open its doors to Burmese refugees from Thailand, bringing an influx of Karen families to the country.
“We had at that time a large number of Karen that came into our community, and not all Christian. So it kind of shook up New Bern, the schools as you can imagine, and some of the churches. So we became one of those safe haven places,” recalls Stutts.
The answer to their prayers came as “quite a shock” to some church members, Stutts admits.
“This was a church that didn’t have any children and all of a sudden there are lots of children, and they’re active children who are used to active church and vocal church, so it was challenging to some of the older members,” she says. “Some of them just simply embraced it and said ‘We prayed for children; thank God, look what he’s brought us. Yeah, it might be challenging but it’s a good thing.”’
One of the church members who embraced the change was Melanie Matthews, the youngest of five generations of her family to attend Rhems United Methodist. Matthews grew up in the church and recently found her way back after returning home to North Carolina in 2015.
“I cried, actually. It was pretty magnificent because it’s a church in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina where people are not very accepting of outsiders. So to see my church that I grew up in turn into this was pretty amazing,” she remembers.
Melanie says the Karen refugees have fundamentally changed the Rhems community.
“It’s opened a lot of people’s minds. I’m glad it’s turned into this because I don’t think I would be here if it hadn’t.”
Melanie’s grandmother, Ann Matthews, has deep roots at Rhems United Methodist. When church members walk through its doors each Sunday, wood cut from her family’s farm decades ago creak beneath their feet and helps support the steeple above their heads.
The arrival of the Karen refugees, she says, was received as a blessing by most, but not all, of the church’s congregation.
“It was a change; some liked it and some didn’t. I liked it. Maybe two or three couples left the church, but generally we grew to love them (the refugees),” she says. “It’s hard for me to recognize them all and get all of their names but I know quite a few of them and I’m delighted they’re here.”
Through her work with the Craven Literacy Council Ann tutors several young Karen refugees who are currently working toward their U.S. citizenship.
“I can see it in my grandma,” adds Melanie, “how much it’s changed her.”
The church’s most senior members, 91-year-old John McLean, and his wife Peggy, 85, have been attending Rhems United Methodist for over six decades.
Peggy is blunt when she describes the negative reactions of some church members to the Karen’s arrival.
“Well, I’ll tell it like it is, we had some members to leave. I think they thought the Karen would come in and take over. I’m not sure exactly what they thought, but they were not happy so they didn’t need to be here,” she states flatly.
Despite the initial growing pains, Peggy says the Karen have helped fill a void left after many of Rhems United Methodist’s young members moved away.
“They were very friendly, very open, very nice people,” she says of the first Karen members to come to the church. “They were just very easy to get to know. It was hard for us to communicate but they would still speak, hug us…very friendly people. They’ve been a blessing to our church.”
“The Burmese are very giving people and very much a part of what goes on in our church,” adds John.
Rev. Stutts says the Rhems United Methodist congregation has responded in kind. Unlike other churches that have taken in Karen refugees, Rhems has integrated the newcomers into every aspect of the church experience, from the choir to prayer services. According to Stutts, the Karen have also been named to church leadership roles.
”We’ve been able to do something the other churches have not done on a large scale, which is we don’t have an English speaking service and a Karen speaking service, we have one service of worship together,” says Stutts. “Over the years we have learned to really celebrate the traditions of each culture and really see God in each other and learn from one another.”
When Pawsay Paw arrived in New Bern in 2007 with her husband and two children, she spoke no English and had little understanding of American culture. Yet compared to the world she came from — one that would be frighteningly alien to most westerners — her new home was a wonderland.
“We had been in a refugee camp for 17 years; we had no way to go back to our country because we didn’t have freedom,” she says in careful, halting English. “And then we had a chance for the resettlement in the U.S. I wanted a better life for my children, because we had nowhere to go, we just stay in the camp, we cannot go out.”
Paw says church members lent their support when she and her family had little else to live on. Shortly after her arrival, with only a part time job and lacking funds to pay an electric bill, she turned to Rhems United Methodist for assistance.
“I came to the church and they have an emergency fund and asked if I could borrow $25 to pay my bill and they gave me a check for $25. So it is very great for me, I will never forget about that. When I got my money later I paid it back for another family if they need help,” says Paw.
Paw says adjusting to America offered other challenges as well, such as learning how to drive and opening a bank account.
“I have to learn everything from how to use the phone and how to use the electronic stove or microwave, because we didn’t have this kind of stuff. It is totally different, we had to learn everything new, just start from zero,” she says.
The Karen families who arrived prior to Pawsay Paw’s built a support system that helped cushion the landing for future refugees touching down in the New Bern community.
When Naw Beh Bay relocated to New Bern in 2004, she searched for a church where she and her three sons could worship in a way that honored her Baptist upbringing, and that would offer support for newly-arrived refugees.
“The religious worship at Rhems is almost the same as the Karen. When we worship we know we worship God and Jesus Christ,” she says.“This church helped a lot of our refugees; any time we got in trouble they’ve been there to help.”
One of the biggest tests of that support came in 2008, when a van carrying a group of Karen returning from a worship service in Morehead City was struck head on by another vehicle. The driver of the van and another man were killed and a young woman was left in critical condition.
As their pasture, Rev. Stutts visited the families of the deceased and injured to offer what comfort she could.
“I’ll never forget I took my shoes off and walked in and the wife is sitting in the middle of the floor and there’s all these Karen women and there’s this mourning that’s going on and I don’t know what they’re saying, I don’t understand what’s happening,” remembers Stutts. “ But I remember seeing that the women sitting by her were squeezing her arm to comfort her. And so immediately I moved to her and I sat down and squeezed her arm as I’d seen the others do, and I just prayed.”
The accident, said Stutts, was instrumental in knitting the church and the Karen community together.
“We were no longer the white church with refugees, but we were Rhems United Methodist Church,” she states.
For many of the younger Karen refugees, the church has been a constant throughout their lives, a safe haven from an outside world that could often be disorienting or even hostile.
Joshua Htoo, Bay’s son, remembers arriving in New Bern as an eight year old and finding few other refugees to help guide the way.
”Our family was one of the first families to come to New Bern, so getting help was really challenging compared to refugees who arrive right now,” he remembers. “Now there are so many people who have been here and done that already.”
Htoo recalls the “really big” sense of culture shock he experienced at the time.
“The first thing I remember is going to school at Oaks Road Elementary on the bus and I was really afraid. I didn’t know how to speak the language, people are looking at me. It was a big shock.”
Htoo said one of his biggest challenges was navigating the idiosyncrasies of the Southern dialect.
“Just getting used to the culture, the way people dress, the way people talk. Especially, New Bern being in the South, the accent is something that I had to get used to.”
Htoo says he eventually picked up the language and local customs by becoming involved in sports.
“I actually communicated with other students better in PE class, doing something like playing soccer. That’s what I try to tell other kids, play sports, you’ll make friends and have teammates and you’ll pick up the culture so much faster.”
Htoo went on to form CAPAY (Coalition of Asian Pacific American Youth), a New Bern High School club that promotes the importance of a college education. He’s also become a living example of that ethic: he is currently a freshman at the Citadel Military College seeking a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Htoo is set to graduate in 2020.
Rhems United Methodist, he stressed, has played an outsized role in his academic, and personal, growth.
“This is a great church, they welcomed us with open arms,” he says. “It was like family, like coming to a family that we didn’t even know.”
According to Rev. Stutts, the relationship between the Karen community and Rhems United Methodist has been one of mutual rejuvenation.
“Those relationships where there’s give and receive on both sides are really important for the church, because we never want to be like ‘we’re the white people that know everything and let us help you.’ We understand that we needed the Karen community as much, and possibly more, than they needed us.”
The church members stress that, paramount among the blessings they’ve received from the Karen is their devotion to community.
Ann Matthews recalls a Karen birthday party she attended as “the most moving ceremony I’ve ever been in.”
“It was not a birthday party,” she remembers, “it was a birthday celebration of this child and how precious he was.”
“I love the call to community, the reminder of the importance of community that I get from the Karen,” says Rev. Stutts. “We as Americans think ‘America is the best nation and everyone would be happy to be here.’ But there are things we lose because of things that we incessantly must have.”
“Courage,” says Stutts, when asked what she’s learned from the Karens.
“They really have courageous faith. I would like to be like them without having to go through what they’ve gone through, but I’m pretty sure that kind of faith only comes through the fire.”
Like a song, or a river, the Rhems United Methodist homecoming service has a rhythm, a rising tidal flow.
The service begins with the sharing of joys and sorrows. A congregation member says the church’s Karen youth group recently cleaned her gutters “joyfully and happily.”
Stutts mentions an earthquake in Mexico, flooding in Burma, India and Bangladesh.
Another woman says she is thankful the descendants of those who built the church can be here this morning.
Today’s lesson is from Exodus 12, the story of the Passover, read first in Karen, then English.
“The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”
A group of Karen singers slowly make their way to the front of the church, forming a loose semicircle beside the alter. An acoustic guitar cuts through the congregation’s chatter and Rev. Stutts calls for a song, “Old Church Choir.”
“Can you hear it? Can you hear it? Ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy. That old church choir singing in my soul.”
The entire congregation has joined in now, their voices reverberating off the wood paneled walls and pastel-tinted stained glass windows.
The song rolls and rises, borne along on a swell of Southern English and Southeast Asian tongues, punctuated by the cries and laughter of children.
“I say that our language at Rhems is love, it’s not English, it’s not Karen, it’s love,” says Stutts. “And love knows no bounds, there’s no walls it can’t go through or knock over, and we had a lot of walls to knock down.”