Archived Story

These immigrants gave to us

Published 9:56am Monday, January 14, 2013

Despite all the tradition of Christmas, there are always surprises within the tradition. This year surprised me in a way as never before.

Two weekends prior to Christmas, one of my Karen friends phoned and advised a group of Karen from St. Paul was about to arrive at our house to sing Christmas songs for us. (I have written here previously about this people who had been driven out of Burma, taken refuge in Thailand, and are now being settled securely in various parts of the world by the U.N. A couple hundred are working in Austin.)

A caravan of vehicles soon arrived, led by a mini-van marked: “First Karen Baptist Church, St. Paul.” They walked to the house with warm smiles and greetings in both languages. Their clothing was mixed between traditional ethnic dress and holiday clothing donned for the occasion.

They asked to sing for the pastors at our church and for me, to thank us for how well our church had received their friends who had moved to Austin. The others were elsewhere, and we couldn’t arrange this with such short notice. But we hurriedly invited in our neighbors — Catholic and Lutheran alike — and had a good and respectful audience.

Each Karen shook his or her shoes off as they entered, and the high pile was itself a sign of respect. They opened with a Merry Christmas greeting in recently learned English. And they sang. Oh, did they sing—in parts.

Some songs we recognized from the tunes, and others were entirely unfamiliar. We asked the leader to give us an English translation. Then we recognized the age-old Christmas message sung around the world by all believers.

They told me they were spending two days traveling from St. Paul to Austin, but also Albert Lea, Worthington, and Marshal—wherever Karen had settled and had “native” friends like us. They also informed me it is a centuries-old tradition in Burma and now Thailand for Karen to visit each other’s homes every night in December. What they did on the other side of the world, they now do in America.

The next week a family invited us to their home for what was both a Christmas party and birthday party for their two-year-old daughter, So Shine Myat. Two surprises here. Other guests were Karen families we hadn’t yet met, but also a Karen pastor and his deacon who came from St. Paul to meet us. The deacon explained the family had been church members there, and family and church had not forgotten the other.

Both preached in Karen and supplied a brief English translation. When the deacon finished, I told him: “I can tell from the joy on your face and the song in your voice that you love Jesus and you are my brother.”

The several non-Karen invited were honored to sit on the sparse furniture. They sat comfortably on the floor. Food was brought in and laid out before us — on the floor. It was like an over-laden holiday table, but on the floor. The love and joy were the same.

If this weren’t enough of a Christmas surprise, the next weekend yet another group headed to Austin and the route in southern Minnesota. These came from St. Paul’s First Baptist Church, which has a large Karen group within its membership. This time we had more notice, and I led them around Austin to several homes where they also sang.

Now, the surprise for me was not Christmas caroling, which is wonderfully traditional and to be expected within our American context. For all the years our family has caroled for older people around town, this was the first time we were caroled — and twice.

The bigger surprise is that these new friends, most newly arrived in America, were giving to us. For over a year some of us have been giving to them what we could and helping them as we could to settle into our community. They have thanked us unfailingly and warmly and given us little gifts from their mountain refugee villages. Such was fully sufficient.

Now this. I could hardly believe it.

As I thanked those at the Christmas party, I said: “Thank you for coming to our country.” Too late, I recognized how self-centered was this remark, however sincerely meant. I wished strongly I had added something, but the second group of carolers gave me this opportunity. I prayed with and for them and then said: “Thank you for coming to our country, which is now your country, too.” From their reactions, I could see this was at least as good as “Merry Christmas.”

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