Karen are deserving of American welcomePublished 9:30am Monday, March 19, 2012
Austin is acquiring an excellent opportunity to be Americans of the historic sort by welcoming the Karen people into our community’s society and culture. I find them to be a lovely people, and it is important to note they are in this country legally. This latter factor makes all the difference in the world as to what should be our attitude and contact with them.
The Karen (pronounced ka-REN) people have immigrated from Burma through Thailand as a people severely persecuted by the Burmese majority and their government and many are in the process of moving from St. Paul to Austin. I met some initially when eight filed into back pews of our church a few months ago. From their physical features and clothing, we recognized them as those we met in Thailand and Burma a few years ago. We greeted them with the polite bow and prayer-like folded hands and I said, “Sawatdi kharp.” (Ann had to put it in the feminine: “Sawatdi ka.”) This may have been our first error, because this is Thai, and they are Karen.
They came to our worship service just to be in the midst of worshippers, not because they understand English. We have difficulty understanding what English they now speak and in making ourselves understood by them. But they understand smiles and tone of voice.
The Karen seem to have originated in China or Mongolia as a nomadic tribe and migrated centuries ago to Burma. They settled in the jungle mountains and turned to rice farming on the slopes. The Burmese promptly persecuted them as intruders and enslaved many. When Japan invaded Burma in World War II, the British army persuaded Karens to fight with them to defend against invasion. The opportunistic Burmese, however, joined the Japanese and fought with them against the British colonials and Karens. When both foreign armies left, they left the Karens to the mercy of the Burmese, who had none.
The Buddhist Burmese tolerated Karens when they were animists but began to persecute them as they became Christians. Today at least a third of Karens worldwide are Christians, and 95 percent of those who have come to Minnesota are.
Next year will be the 200th anniversary of Adonirum Judson arriving in India and then reaching into Burma with the gospel. The first Karen convert was baptized in 1828.
As hostility by the Burmese army intensified, many Karens fled across the border into Thailand. Yet the Burmese army, not satisfied to be rid of this sizeable ethnic minority, pursued them across the border, killed their people and burned their villages. Thailand failed to defend its own borders and was unable to absorb them. Under international supervision, they were collected and confined to refugee camps along the border. Most of our friends here have lived in the Mae La camp. The camp has had as many as 80,000 refugees crowded together in grass huts.
Karens seemed to understand America to be a Christian nation, and we became attractive to them. Because a great number of the Karens are Baptist, St. Paul’s First Baptist Church has become home to them, with over 200 in weekly worship in their language.
QPP wisely recognizes employment potential in the Karen community, because these have been sponsored by various international agencies and have entered this country openly and legally. Those many who have asserted they accept immigration and that it is only illegal immigration they oppose now have a convenient opportunity to demonstrate their tolerance and welcome. So do we all.
Austin schools are acting wisely and responsibly in anticipating the arrival of full families who will be enrolling their children. We appreciate the school district allowing us to learn from an exceedingly instructive presentation a week ago by Saw Morrison of the Karen Organization of Minnesota. I invite readers to study its website at www.mnkaren.org.
As I was drafting this, my brother Gh Kler phoned from Thailand, where he has gone to care for aging parents. He thanks us for praying for him and tells me our brothers and sisters there are praying for us.
Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto even the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me.”