Sunday, August 23, 2009

Burmese refugees, Christians, Church and religion

Kept a long time promise to a Karen friend today and went to church with him. The church was a fundamentalist Christian church and very popular among Karen and other refugees from Burma. Karen formal dress worn at formal occasions consists of a hand woven vest or dress.

To illustrate, I've stolen a few pictures from These pictures are of Karen people in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand but in Rensselaer many dress up like this for special occasions including Sunday morning church services. If you'd like to see some pictures I took of local Karen women dressed in traditional dress during the water festival you may look here. According to "The Karen Revolution in Burma: Diverse Voices, Uncertain Ends," by Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, 2008. East West Center, Washington D.C., although most Karen are Buddhist, most S'gaw Karen are Christian and most (but not all) Karen refugees who come to the United States are S'Gaw Karen. This is, in part, because the S'gaw Karen have a long history of conflict and friction with the Burmese. This friction was excaberated as the British made a practice of using Karen Christian militias to attack the Burmese when conflict broke out between the Burmese and the British. In fact, many Karen during world war two were under the impression that once the Japanese were ousted from their region they would be given their own new, independent homeland. Sadly, I think, this did not come to pass.

One of my Karen friends speaks of wishing to join the U.S. Army (A surprising number of young refugees consider enlisting in the military. I say surprising because so many of them are war survivors. Usually the ASVAB, military aptitude tests, give them trouble.) He once told me proudly that his grandfather had been a solider in the British army and fought against the Burmese.

Interestingly the Karen dress was worn not only by the Karen themselves but also by a couple of the Americans present. If the Karen like a person they will sometimes give him such a piece of clothing and it is a valuable thing indeed as each takes hours to weave. (The time I was offered one it was too small for me and although I was promised a larger one, it still has not come. I once considered a project to import and sell them but even at Thai refugee camp labor rates the cost would have been quite high for each piece of clothing and the resale have to be done carefully. It's not impossible, but few people would buy one on impulse at a consignment store, for instance.)

I am normally not a church goer and this church was quite fundamentalist.

About two thirds into the service, the congregation broke up quickly and did so by language. Upstairs there were two groups, the Burmese language group and the (S'gaw) Karen language group. Both groups were intended to offer Bible readings and lessons on salvation with questions and answers from the attendees. There was supposed to also be a Karenni language group (the Karenni are another Burmese ethnic group who are distinctly different from the Karen) but, it was explained, "the devil had dealt them a hand" and the Karenni-English interpreter could not come that week so they had substituted a Karenni-Burmese interpreter instead and put the Karenni with the Burmese language group. (Incidentally the Burmese language interpreter was a very intelligent, hard working Karen, not Burmese, man who had lived in Rangoon (Yangon).)

The theme of the service was salvation through Christ and the lessons were Bible based. Verses were read and explained. Should one wish, I took notes. We were encouraged to do so and to mark up our Bibles if we had brought them. Interestingly the church used the King James version of the Bible with its old style language, something I wondered about in the context that a large portion of the attendees spoke English as a second language and that to varying degrees.

A friend of mine let me look at his Bible, a Bible that was entirely in the Karen script, a script which as explained in an earlier post is a variant of the Burmese script. I've been reviewing the script again and was able to find the book of Luke and pick out the chapters by number. (Of course, it helped that I knew where to look.)

Verses cited were Romans 3:10, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:8, Romans 10:9-13, and Romans 6:23, as well as John 3:16, Revelation 20:10 and Acts 2:41 and, interestingly, the Old Testament verse Isaiah 59:2. Like most fundamentalist Christian churches these verses heavily emphasize the teachings of Paul and his doctrine of accepting Christ as a personal savior in order to wash away the pre-existing sin in all of us that blocks are union with God and admission to Heaven. For those who wish to see the verses themselves, I've found to be a very good site for Bible study.

The Pastor of the church is an American man who I genuinely believe cares very much about the well-being of his congregation and its members. (We bumped into each once when I was delivering some couches to some refugees who had slipped through the cracks and never received them from the refugee center. This was after I stopped working at the center. Curiously, of all the pieces of furniture to acquire, couches are often the easiest to find but the most difficult to move and deliver. This is not coincidence. Getting couches is easy if one knows where to ask and one has a vehicle and manpower to move them. We discussed working together to, of all things, move a couch once, but the refugee who owned the couch decided to simply abandon it when he moved and apparently it got left for the next tenants.)

Songs came from something called "The All American Church Hymnal" and we sang a song entitled "He Lives" from 1933 and another called "Stepping in the Light" from 1917. They sounded evocative of the years they were written.

The only part of the service I really wondered about was the time spent promoting a private Christian school that cost $100 a month for tuition plus registration fees. This, like everything else in the service, was also done in Karen and Burmese. Of course, to some extent, this hints at a larger issue. Should one include newly arrived refugees in the group (whatever group one is referring to) when presenting options that one personally does not think they should choose due to their financial status and lack of experience in this country? Or should you exclude them, thereby making the decision for them? Personally I think it would be a mistake for a newly arrived refugee to spend a large portion of his or her income to send children to a private school when there is an equally good, perhaps even better, public school available for free. But do I have the right to not offer them the choice were I to offer it to others or should I just decide what is right for them using my own judgment? There's no easy answer to this question.

Let me say, just for the record, I do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, nor do I believe in an after life or Heaven as it was described. I do not see Jesus as a mystical deity who brings salvation, but instead I see Jesus mostly as a troublemaker, a man who pointed out hypocrisy within the doctrinal institutions of his time, so much that finally the authorities decided he had to be done away with and nailed him up on a cross, but whose message lived on long after he did. And, of course, I mean that in a good way. (I try to resist labels, and prefer not to knock the means by which others find meaning so long as they aren't harming others, but if forced to I would fall in the category of cynical agnostic.) Yet as I become older, I become more tolerant of fundamentalist Christianity as it does give some people what they need and, quite frankly, there's nothing I can do about it anyway should I object.

The refugees who come here from Burma are a mixed bunch in terms of religion. They include many Christians as well as Muslims, Hindus and, of course, Buddhists. As Burma today engages in great religious persecution the religious affiliations of the refugees are not anywhere near the same proportions as the greater Burmese population still in Asia. Some day I will try to write about the others.

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