St. James Embraces Diversity

01.08.15 | by Kimberly Durnan

St. James Embraces Diversity

Karen refugees celebrate Christmas at St. James in Dallas. Traditional Burmese food, including noodles, egg rolls and fried rice was prepared for the party.

What started as a group of Karen refugees worshipping in their living rooms has become a beautiful integration into the church life of St. James in Dallas.

When The Rev. Cliff Gardner was contacted by Catholic Charities asking if he would be interested in working with a group of Anglicans who were living in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood, he said he would be happy to help out.

“My grandson and I went to their apartment complex and started to do communion,” Gardner said. “I don’t speak Karen and they didn’t speak English but the prayer book is what held us together. We did that for a year, or a year and half, and finally they decided they were comfortable enough to worship at church. Then we started getting parishioners to drive to the apartment complex and pick them up.”

Originally some of the Karens were attending a Baptist church but when an Anglican bishop from Burma came to Dallas for a visit he told them they should to go to an Anglican Church. It’s been a great fit. They are devout Christians who make worship and church a big part of their lives.

“One of the things I noticed immediately is that these people are really devout,” Gardner said. “They are not marginal. It’s been wonderful. We brought them to our church and everyone worshiped together.”

Once, when Gardner picked up a group of Karen children to drive to vacation Bible school, he witnessed first-hand their devoutness. “I had the car radio on a news station and one of the kids jumped in the front seat and changed it. I was going to chastise him and then I realized it was a Christian station.”

However, in the early days of the transition, the language differences were still somewhat of a barrier. That’s when parishioner Ginny Thomas stepped-in to teach a language class. “I had been an ESL teacher so I thought I could help them,” she said. “The parents learned survival English and the kids became really fluent. We did this for about two years. The third year we offered a class on citizenship and two of them became citizens and are now very active in our youth group.”

Gardner said the church leadership had discussed getting a Burmese priest, but couldn’t find one. “We were forced to integrate them into the life of the church and it was a blessing for everyone,” Gardner said. “The kids started serving as acolytes and attending vacation Bible school.”

Lay Lay Htoo, 19, came to the church when his family moved from the refugee camp to Dallas when he was 12. Now he works as a youth director at the church and attends Eastland Community College.

Htoo said he was afraid to leave his apartment when he first came to America, and it was difficult to learn a new language. But participating in worship and church activities helped him to assimilate to his new homeland. Now he helps lead those activities.

“On Saturday we have youth worship. We bring the Karen youth together and learn the Bible, Htoo said. “We have Sunday school for little kids and we talk about how God helps us each week.”

Having the Karen people integrated into the church has been an enriching experience, Thomas said.

“We would have gotten a Karen priest if we could but it was a happy accident,” she said. “We had 26 children go to vacation Bible school and one Karen girl is about to join Daughters of the King. We even have a Buddhist lady who never misses service.”

The Karen parishioners number about 30 and are active participators in church events, Thomas said.

Because they are agrarian and have access to community gardens, during harvest time they share the bounty by bringing bags of produce to the parish hall. During the Christmas bonfire festivities, they cook Burmese noodle dishes for the whole church.

“It’s a really fun party,” Thomas said. “We are blessed to have them in our lives.”