Five years ago a handful of Karenni refugees from Burma were relocated to Winston-Salem. On Sat., April 26 about 400 festively dressed Karenni people gathered at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem to celebrate the ordination of the first Karenni pastor in America.
Steve Hardy, associate pastor for missions at Calvary called it a “significant event.”
He said Khu Htoo Gay is the only resettled Karenni pastor teaching his congregation in Kayah, the mother tongue of the Kayah people. “This is also the first time that Calvary has ordained a pastor from another culture, so we had to figure out how to do that,” he said.
With the help of two interpreters, an ordination council worked for more than a year to complete the process. The council included four Calvary pastors and three deacons. The pastors are senior pastor Rob Peters; associate pastor for deaf and multicultural ministries, Kent Oviatt; Hardy; and associate pastor for college and young adults, Steven Ackley.
The Karenni are a Burmese people group that were heavily persecuted by their government, according to Hardy. “The government of Burma is essentially trying to commit genocide of these people. They lived in the eastern part of Burma, also called Myanmar,” he said. “Many of them fled across the border into Thailand where they were protected by the United Nations (U.N.) in refugee camps.”
The U.N. works with World Relief, an evangelical organization, to resettle refugees in the U.S. Since N.C. was a target area for resettlement, World Relief contacted Rich and Barbara Warren* who were translating the Kayah New Testament. The Warrens are members of Calvary Baptist, so they asked the church to help with the relocation. Many pieces of a complex puzzle started coming together.
Calvary photo by Mike Sheppard
Photo from left to right: Tim Cross, Steve Hardy, Herb Schmidt (deacon), Rich Warren, Chuck Peters (deacon), Saw Gen, David Goggins (deacon). Kneeling: Khu Htoo Gay.
God was working in the lives of another couple who would become instrumental in ministering to the Karennis.
Tim and Jodie Cross had just returned to their home church after 13 years as missionaries in Europe through the International Mission Board. Their work focused on the needs of international refugees in Brussels and London. They began to realize that they did not have to live in London or Brussels to work with refugees.
“God is bringing the world to us,” Tim Cross said. “We began to ask, ‘Why can’t we do the same thing here that we’ve been doing in other parts of the world?’”
The Crosses decided to begin a ministry to refugees called “Open Arms Ministry,” partially funded by Calvary.
“They essentially taught Calvary people how to minister to these people,” Hardy said. “Keep in mind that the Karenni people have been living in bamboo huts with no electricity and no indoor plumbing at all.”
They typically lived in a refugee camp in Thailand 15 to 20 years before coming to the U.S.
Hardy described the plight of the refugees. “Imagine that the U.N. puts you on an airplane, sends you to a country where you don’t know the language, you don’t know anybody,” he said.
“You don’t know what a light switch is, you don’t know what a toilet is, you don’t know what an electric stove is. You’ve been cooking over an open fire. You’ve been using torches for light at night. You have not lived in a safe place – there’s land mines all around where you live. Imagine coming from that environment to the United States.”
He credits the Warrens and Crosses with helping the church understand the Karenni people and teaching them the basics of turning on a light switch and using a toilet. Hardy said, “Tim and Jodie literally spent hours upon hours upon hours just helping us navigate through the systems we have for immigration … how to use the bus system in Winston-Salem, getting jobs and getting the children enrolled in school.”
Refugee families have three months to find a job and become self-sustaining. The Crosses worked with employers in the area. Hotels hired some of the women for housekeeping. Many of the men work in chicken processing plants.
Young Karennis have not been overlooked. For the past four years the Crosses have taken them on summer mission trips to share the gospel with Karenni refugees in other states. The seven- to 10-day youth mission trips have taken them to Atlanta, Ga., Jacksonville, Fla., Denver, Colo., Nashville, Tenn. and Indianapolis, Ind.
The teams conduct Vacation Bible Schools, Back Yard Bible Clubs and worship services in their native language. This has resulted in new church plants among the Karenni in most of those cities.
Cross said, “A Caucasian church in Denver welcomed about 10 Karenni as a result of one mission trip. Today they have 90 Karenni attending that church.”
Htoo Gay’s ministry is expanding rapidly. From 125 to 200 Karennis meet every Sunday morning for worship services in Calvary’s facilities.
Calvary produces video recordings of pastor Htoo Gay and posts the video on the Internet to share with Karenni congregations across the country. Local churches have their own music celebration and show the video of Htoo Gay preaching.
Since there are no other ordained Karenni pastors in the United States, Calvary’s vision is to send Htoo Gay to other states to help these fledgling congregations grow and learn discipleship. He is leading weekend trips throughout the year with a few teenagers and adults.
“One of the issues we are trying to figure out is how to fund it,” Hardy said. “We have some money set aside in Calvary’s budget to help with the expenses, but it is not nearly enough to do the ministry and pay him a salary. We’re looking for some partners who will help us.”
Htoo Gay is a product of Judson Baptist Bible College in Burma. The school is named for Adoniram Judson, one of the first Baptist missionaries and the father of the American Baptist missionary movement. Judson and his wife, Ann, served among a hostile Burmese people from 1812 to 1845, although Ann died in 1826. The fruit of their sacrifice lives 190 years later in Winston-Salem.
*Names withheld for security
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Visit Facebook and search for “Open Arms Refugee Ministry.)