Faith calls us to keep our hearts open, trust God and take the next step, even though we don’t quite know where to put our foot down next.That certainly has been the experience for Rhems United Methodist Church in New Bern, N.C. When encouraged to get involved with refugees, this small rural congregation could have declined, saying, “We are too small. Too old. Too poor.”
Instead, the church said yes to refugees – a lot of refugees! It has shared their joys and sorrows – including one refugee’s grief when she lost her husband and sister in two separate car accidents. And the congregation has been transformed in the process.
Rhems UMC’s pastor, the Rev. Connie Stutts, tells the story, which, she said, “actually begins in 2004, about a year before I got there.”
At that time, Rhems UMC had 35 people in worship on a typical Sunday, average age “probably 70,” and “no children at all.” Member Helen Dawley – then in her late 70s – got involved with Interfaith Refugee Ministries in New Bern and asked the church to cosponsor a refugee family from Burma.
Congregation members agreed, and got an apartment ready for them. Another couple arrived at the same time, but hadn’t been assigned a church cosponsor. Rhems UMC welcomed them and set up an apartment for them, too.
That was step one.
“Shortly after I got there in 2005,” Stutts continued, “the congregation decided it would work with a third family, a couple and their son from Cambodia.”
That was step two. Here comes a big step three!
In 2007, the United States began its resettlement of tens of thousands of Karen, Karenni and other ethnic refugees from Burma out of their camps along the Thailand-Burma border. They began arriving in New Bern by the scores.
“A few of the refugees started attending our Sunday services, and all of a sudden we had a lot of refugees coming,” Stutts said. “Very quickly we had 50 in worship, and now we have 80 – including American, Karen and Karenni adults and children. Overnight, we had all these new people from a different culture with a different language and behavior patterns and different expectations. The congregation rapidly embraced this radical change.”
Two refugee teens from Rhems United Methodist Church joined in a district youth missions project with Stop Hunger Now, packaging food that is sent all over the world. Photo: Rhems UMC
Worship is still conducted in English, but the Scripture lesson is read in both Karen and English. In addition, four English-language Sunday school classes, along with a special week-long summer culture and ESL program, were established for children and teens. “And there are now two adult Sunday school classes, one in English and the other in Karen and Karenni.
“On Sundays, I look out from the pulpit at the congregation and see the different types of people and the different ages, and I see the kingdom of God,” Stutts said. “As a pastor, it’s such a privilege to be part of this.”
Stutts admitted that there have been some rough times. “We lost a few members who couldn’t stand the noise of children in worship. “And the refugees’ needs are overwhelming initially. They arrive with only one suitcase! Most of our congregants don’t have cars or driver’s licenses. We got a van, drove it into the ground. We started praying for a bus and got a great deal on a 21-seater.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, was when members of a Karen refugee family that had been attending Rhems UMC were in a devastating highway accident on their way back to New Bern from out of town “on a horrible rainy day.”
“The husband and middle daughter were riding in one car with another family – husband, wife and toddler son. The first man’s wife and their other three children were in a second vehicle. An oncoming car crossed the line and hit the first car head-on, killing the two men and seriously injuring the other passengers.
“They had been in the United States only a couple of months,” Stutts said. “Before that, they had spent seven years in a refugee camp, after fleeing their burning village in Burma, carrying four small children through the jungle, the Burmese Army in hot pursuit.
“The wife hardly spoke any English, and didn’t know a lot of people or the culture. We had to figure out how to blend two cultures together and help them through that grief time. That was part of brought us together as a community.”
Burial was in a small cemetery behind Rhems UMC. Members of the refugee community dug the grave themselves, according to their culture. The funeral service included Karen and American traditional elements.
Then congregation members sought to give moral and practical support to the wife as she faced managing without her husband – a challenge augmented when her sister and unborn child were killed in a car accident only a few months later.
“She is an incredible woman,” Stutts said. “She got a job and is raising the children so well. She got a settlement from the accident and has been very wise with her money. She has purchased a home. She and her eldest daughter just passed the U.S. naturalization exam and will be sworn in as citizens in July. She has taught us so much about faith, perseverance and hope.”
Concluded Stutts, “We are a rural church with no money but a huge God we’ve learned to trust. And the power of love has held us together!”
Since the time that this article was written, The General Commission on Religion and Race has awarded Rhems United Methodist Church a CORR Action Fund grant in the amount of $14,650.00 to continue their amazing work. I have been honored and privileged to have been assigned, as a GCORR Board member and CORR Action Fund Committee member to walk with Rhems over the next year.
Theirs is a story of struggle within…not everyone was accepting of the change that welcoming new people into “their” pews brought. Cultures, ethnicity and expectations clashed. Not everyone liked what was being served. Their were mistakes made. Ingredients didn’t always mix. Sometimes things were missing (money) from the recipe.
But in the end, through Rhems perseverance, the table remained open…and all of United Methodism has been served.