of the worship service attendance on Sunday mornings.
First Baptist Church has taken many steps to serve and
minister to this new people group. An English as a Second
Language Bible study class has been established. The congregation alternates between singing English and Karen verses,
as many English hymns have been translated into Karen over
the decades. A Karen choir often sings during the services.
And members have collected clothing and furniture for new
families, offered transportation, and taken the time to help
them develop basic skills such as driving a car, navigating a
computer and the Internet, and shopping for used cars.
First Baptist now has 10 Karen members, with several more
expressing interest in taking the membership class and joining the church. Karen are now being incorporated into the
church’s ministries: they serve as ushers, teach Sunday School,
volunteer in children’s ministry, and more.
While First Baptist gladly welcomed the influx of new
friends, the situation has been complicated at times. The
language and cultural differences can be difficult to work past.
While a large percentage of the Karen people whom Marshall has encountered identify themselves as Baptist, upon
further inquiry, many seem to do so only in a nominal sense
to conform to tradition. Among the more dedicated believers,
differences in doctrinal emphasis can sometimes be hinted at,
though the language barrier makes it difficult to determine if
a difference is the position of the individual or the position
held by some Karen church leaders. Historical developments
among Baptists in the U.S. that eventually led to the formation of the GARBC did not have a neat parallel in the Karen
tribe’s setting. Practical matters that seem firmly established
in Regular Baptist settings, such as the pastoral office being
occupied exclusively by men, were not as consistently held by
some Karen Baptists.
While challenges have been real, there are also advantages.
As the son of a U.S. Navy sailor and a native Filipina, my Asian
ancestry has proven to be enough of a similarity to help build
a bridge with these new friends. Karen people tend to be very
loyal once a relationship is formed, which has helped establish
a collective sense of patience as the differences are navigated
around. While different schools of thought exist as to whether
a distinct congregation should be formed around language and
cultural factors, the Karen in Marshall have insisted that they
desire to integrate with the rest of the congregation, providing
a cultural anchor where they can be mentored by believers who
are familiar with the challenges and temptations their families
will encounter in a new environment.
First Baptist’s Karen ministry has also positively impacted
the church’s presence and influence in its wider community.
Relationships with community organizations such as social
Cultural Differences and Discoveries
The Karen tribe is one of several minority tribes that
inhabit Myanmar/Burma in addition to the dominant
The majority of Karen people speak one of two dia-
lects: Sgaw and Pwo. They are different enough that
speakers cannot understand one another.
Generally speaking, Karen people do not have family
names, only personal. Ti Poe and Hei Paw are husband
and wife, and their son is Say Thar Htoo. This can make
filling out forms in the U.S. challenging.
Karen names are usually not abbreviated; whole
names are used.
Karen people can and do change their names, sometimes after a significant development in their lives.
Some Karen in the U.S. have attempted to conform to
Western name traditions, creating last names or using
only a portion of their compound name. For example,
Mue La Htoo might choose to be known only as Mue La
to better fit in with American customs.
The Karen are in the U.S. as refugees because of hos-tilities with the Burmese that eventually led to civil war,
dating back to 1949.
St. Paul, Minn., is home to the largest Karen population in the U.S. The Karen Organization of Minnesota
estimates that number to be 6,000– 10,000 people.