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Burmese Refugees Provide Small-Town Church with Renewed Purpose

In 2007, attendance at All Saints' Episcopal Church in the small town of Smyrna, Tennessee, had fallen to just 20 souls. The tiny congregation could no longer make the mortgage payment on the church and was preparing to sell the property. It was at this point that Karen refugees from Burma arrived, more than quadrupling the congregation's membership overnight.

Church vicar the Rev. Michael Spurlock says that, initially, the Karen seemed more burden than blessing.

"We didn't know how prepared we were to take on a community of approximately 70 refugees with, I mean, just deep fundamental needs: food, clothing, health care, education," he recalls. "But we don't get to choose who comes to our door. God sends them."

The Karen - mostly Anglican Christians from a predominately Buddhist country - were also struggling. Their former lives as subsistence farmers in the highlands of Southeast Asia had left them ill-prepared for life in the United States.

Ye Win, a spokesman for the Karen, says his fellow refugees are thankful for the new start, but it hasn't been easy.

"We [find it] really difficult to stay in United States; like for medical, food stamps, like emergencies, the sick, looking for the job sometimes. Some people don't have the ride, the car, so have to walk four-and-half miles, go and back."

The Karen did eventually find work - at least, low-paying jobs at a meatpacking plant in a nearby town. But they were still having trouble making ends meet, and so they asked Spurlock if they could plant gardens on the church's large property. The All Saints' vicar decided the idea was heaven-sent.

"You know," he says with a smile, "it's God saying, 'I've given you this land, and now I've sent you all these farmers. And they need to eat, and the church needs to provide a means by which they can do that.'"

In addition, he points out, it could provide an income stream for the church as it sought to help both the new and old members of the congregation.

So last June, All Saints' planted its first crop on about a hectare of land. Even though they started late in Tennessee's growing season, the church still managed to harvest more than 9,000 kilos of produce; it was enough to feed the refugees and pay some of the church's bills.

But beyond financial concerns, Spurlock says the Karen have given All Saints' renewed purpose.

"The church can be a sleepy sort of thing sometimes, a drowsy sort of animal, and this really woke us up. It really sort of turned our world upside down in a very, I think, healthy sort of way."

He notes that the entire congregation has pitched in to help the Karen - working on the farm, providing transportation, helping them deal with the government and even organizing weekly English lessons.

All Saints' member Michael Williams was appointed by the church to oversee the farm project. As he watched the Karen plant the first few rows of crops back in June, he recalls being impressed with their community spirit and strong work ethic.

"They could do five or six [30-meter] rows in about half the time it took four church members from here to do half of a row!" he says. "I mean, they just had it down to a science, and it was teamwork. Somebody was moving along opening up the earth. Someone was putting the seeds in. Someone else was covering it up. They knew what they were doing."

The Karen also knew what they were doing when it came to marketing. They convinced a skeptical Williams to let them sow sour leaf, a vegetable widely used in Asian dishes but unfamiliar to Americans. It was one of the farm's biggest sellers, bought up by other Asian immigrants in the area anxious for a taste of home.

The Karen and the rest of the All Saints' members are looking forward to planting an even larger farm plot this spring. They also hope to open a produce stand right on the church property.

Spurlock is looking even further ahead, believing that additional educational opportunities for the Karen should probably be the church's next big project. His experience to date, however, suggests they should keep an open mind.

As he points out, "The next thing could be as unexpected and off-the-wall as what we thought this was. So we might think we have it all figured out and that education is, 'Oh, that's definitely the thing!' Well, God might surprise us. And if we're listening to him, we'll probably have a better chance of getting the next step right."

On Christmas Day, the All Saints' Church took yet another of those next right steps, conducting the Christmas Mass in both English and Karen.