Walking with Karen Baptist Sisters

IMG00074-20130816-1456Nearly 100 women of the Karen Baptist Church in the U.S.A. (KBCUSA) met in Portland, Oregon, on August 15-17, 2013, for the 3rd Karen Women’s Leadership Training event, and they had invited me to be a guest speaker.

Tell me, what shall a Euro-American woman teach to an audience of Karen women? Most all of them had grown up in Burma or a refugee camp in Thailand. I looked into their faces and saw courageous women who have survived discrimination, destruction of home and village, rape, hunger, separation from family; these are women who were uprooted from their homeland and plopped down to resume life in the likes of Huron, South Dakota; Dallas, Texas; Rochester, New York; and about 150 other communities and cities across the United States. Oh, and did I mention? They speak the Karen language. In fact, many speak three or four languages and out of necessity they’re mastering English, too.

What can an American Baptist woman who is fluent in one language and has lived the American dream all her life say to this audience? They watched me with polite attention, adorned in their traditional colorful dress, waiting for me to speak in words many of them would not understand.  (Thank the Lord for interpreters!)

On the flight to Portland, I had reread Eric Law’s book The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community to give me a handle on how I might approach the culture gap between me and them. I decided that I would be as honest as possible and forewarn them in advance that I would undoubtedly stumble into some cultural blunders. I launched into my presentation, earnestly channeling my thoughts and words to connect with commonalities we share as women in the church. I spoke a sentence in English, the interpreter repeated my sentence in Karen. The audience chuckled at the right times, and so I relaxed and continued to “wade into the deep.” We talked about being encouragers, like Barnabas had been for Saul. We practiced skills to strengthen our communication when negotiating with male leaders and supervisors. We considered how each of us can invite and honor communication styles that differ from our own.

We shared a common meal of rice and fish and chicken, and I too dipped into the hot chili condiment bowl. Women sought me out to introduce themselves, and I so often mispronounced their names in my attempt to learn them.

Sitting in the congregation with them later, I carefully watched and listened and learned. I had been in meetings with a few of these same Karen women before – settings at which they were the outside guests in a mass of American women chattering in English, settings that defined them as “different,” settings that evoked timidity in them. But here on their own turf, their confidence and competence as church leaders was in glorious display. Happy voices rang out, organizers led, leaders delegated, enthusiasm was met with excited grins, easy laughter rippled across the room, strong voices sang in harmony, the Word was preached, and I was encouraged!

Glad to be walking with women’s ministry leaders of the Karen Baptist Church USA,

Virginia Holmstrom

Virginia Holmstrom -color Virginia Holmstrom serves as executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

For more information about refugees from Burma, including the Karen (pronounced kah-REN), visit www.abwministries.org. You will also find updated news and information at the website of Duane and Marcia Binkley, jointly-appointed missionaries of ABCUSA and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, serving the Karen in Thailand and in the U.S.

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