Several years ago, Rhems United Methodist Church, a small, rural congregation in New Bern, NC began praying for children. The congregation was aging and they longed for youth and new energy to support their mission to build disciples and transform the community. Soon enough, those prayers were answered, though not perhaps in the way the church first imagined. The youth and young families that came to Rhems were not native New Bernians; instead, they were Karen (Kah-Ren) refugees from Burma.
In the past decade, over 159,000 refugees from Burma have been resettled in the United States. Burmese refugees are mostly members of various ethnic minority groups, Karen being one of the largest, that have been fleeing civil war and persecution. In New Bern, a resettlement agency called the Interfaith Refugee Ministry has assisted over 1,500 refugees to resettle and build new lives in the community since 1992.
Integrating refugees into the congregation posed many challenges, particularly for Rhems pastor, Rev. Connie Stutts. On the challenge side, there was the obvious – language barriers – that had to be met. Karen-language bibles were added to the pews and Karen-language Sunday school classes were created. One lay leader began hosting English as a Second Language (ESL) and computer literacy classes at the church. But the new refugee members brought many blessings to the church as well – refugee families were tight-knit, deeply spiritual and prayerful. The church quickly became an important piece of the social fabric and supportive community for its Burmese refugee members.
After a tragedy struck the community and highlighted the need for better education and services for the mental health needs among refugees living in New Bern, it was the churches worshiping alongside refugees who came together to brainstorm ways to help. But the brainstorming sessions surfaced complexities – there are multiple Burmese tribes and language groups living in New Bern with different language and cultural needs to be considered. Fear about stigma often prevents refugees from talking about the trauma, depression and anxiety that they experience before and after resettlement. Additionally, there were reports that several members of the community had turned to alcohol abuse and dependence as a means of coping with that trauma. And, despite the presence of a significant refugee community since the early 90s, refugee-specific and language appropriate medical resources in and around New Bern are extremely limited.
Through her participation with the Reimagining Health Collaborative, Rev. Stutts took a step back from the community efforts to respond to the broader mental health needs of the refugee community and began reflecting on her own congregation’s needs. Coupling the church-honored practice of prayer with strengths and resources that were already in place, like strong family values and a weekly ESL class that met at the church, Stutts started a weekly prayer circle for refugees to come together and pray for their children and grandchildren. After a few weeks, Stutts started asking questions about the challenges refugee parents faced in America, as compared to their previous experience in camps. In this safe space, refugees started opening up and sharing their struggles. There was vulnerability, honesty, and even some shared laughter about their experiences. Stutts, with the help of a translator at the meetings, heard members speak up who had never been vocal before, even though they’d been regular and long-term attendants at church. A year later, this group of refugees still gathers weekly at the church after their ESL classes. They’ve found a special kind of support – with prayer as the foundation – that has deepened their connections to one another and to their church. In the fall of 2016, when Stutts stood in front of the congregation and asked for more leaders to stand up and serve the church, every single member of the parenting prayer circle came to her and said, “I am ready to serve.” And as of January, 2017, 70% of Rhems UMC’s church council was comprised of refugee congregants.
As Rhems continues to work to serve its own congregants and its neighbors, it’s exploring ways to share the prayer circle model with other refugee churches and congregations. Rhems is also exploring ways to to host a refugee-focused training around mental health first aid in partnership with other organizations in the community. Changes began at Rhems with the arrival and welcoming of its refugee members. But an even more significant transformation is in process as the church thoughtfully and intentionally aligns its mission, strengths, and resources in a ministry for both the congregation and the greater community.