About a decade ago, my mother mentioned that the small Baptist church she attends in downtown Ottawa had seen an influx of newcomers whose English was limited to non-existent.
She didn’t know much about them. They were Karen people from Myanmar (or Burma as it is sometimes known – the name keeps changing) who had come to Canada as refugees. Since they were of Baptist background they chose the closest Baptist church when they were looking for a place to worship.
I attend that church usually only a couple of times a year, at Christmas or my mother’s birthday, and have seen how the Karen community have made some subtle changes to the church.
The first thing was the influx of children. Downtown Baptist churches usually have an aging population. I’m not sure how many Karen were part of the group, but I did notice that the number of children who came to the front of the sanctuary for the children’s story had increased dramatically. The two or three was now at least 10.
The makeup of the choir changed too. Suddenly there were about half a dozen teenage girls taking part – quite a change for a ten person choir with, I think, an average age of about 65. The worship service also acquired a slight bilingual flavor – the daily Scripture reading was always read in English and Karen.
The last time I was there I noticed that the church had a new fundraising project, looking to set up a fund to help these Karen believers with university tuition. I don’t know how integrated the original community and the newcomers have become – but they certainly have tried.
All of which is an introduction to All Saints, by Michael Spurlock and Jeannette Windle. Both the book and the film of the same name came out last month. It is the story of an Episcopal (Anglican) church in Smyrna, Tennessee, and the Karen refugees who came to it in 2007.
I was drawn to the book by the similarities with my mother’s church, but what happened at All Saints was quite different. The church was struggling and on the brink of closure when 70 Karen showed up at the door looking for a place to worship (and for some help figuring out their new American homeland). I gather there was national news coverage of what happened next, but somehow I missed that so the story was new to me.
Pretty much everyone likes an inspirational tale, and All Saints certainly fits the bill. There is enough backstory that the reader can understand who the Karen are and why they came to America as refugees. It is an easy read, and perhaps some of the obstacles the Karen faced have been glossed over. The focus is on triumph, no adversity.
My biggest disappointment was the decision to write the book in the third person. Michael Spurlock was the rector of All Saints, Smyrna, from 2007-2010. He was the one who led the congregation as they opened their arms to people from another race and culture. I would have though a first-person account would have been even more powerful.
One of the biggest problems any church has is living up to the Biblical standards Jesus set for his community. We human tend toward the selfish, not the selfless. We are less than welcoming to strangers and we aren’t good at sharing. All too often Christianity in action is more an ideal than a reality. In All Saints we find a church struggling to be true to their faith, to put the words of Scripture into action and succeeding. The book perhaps makes it seem easier than it actually was, but that makes it no less inspiring.
“Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.”