Karen Refugee Baptism

This morning was joyful.  Wait, before I go forward, let me take a step back.

Some weeks ago we learned that a number of Burmese refugees in our area, including a couple children in a family that we had sponsored would be baptized at a local church.  A week ago we received confirmation that the baptism would indeed take place.

The Karen people of Burma have, more-or-less, a Baptist background so they believe in full immersion at an age of awareness and desire (different from my own Lutheran background which has infant baptisms).

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Pewaukee has sponsored a number of refugee families over the years.  We have sponsored a number of refugee families over the years.  Our separate efforts in the Burmese community managed to come together in a way that could be described as the Holy Spirit moving among the people.

Today we met at St. Bart’s.  They Baptism - Swimming Poolhad arranged for a swimming pool to be set up outside the church so that the immersions could be performed with each person, one at a time.  A preacher speaking Karen was present, as was an interpreter, and St. Bart’s priest-in-charge — Father Tom.

The congregation of St. Bart’s parishioners was there for a “normal” Sunday worship.  They were augmented by a good contingent from Ascension Lutheran Church, clustered together in the pews.  Burmese families moved around with excitement.  And the Burmese choir had voices ready to provide the all-important sounds that this really was not a “normal” Sunday.

After the greetings, and explanations how today’s service would proceed, the service was underway.  When it came to the days message, those who speak the Karen language moved to a different room.  Those who understand English stayed put.  We each had a sermon in our own language before reconvening.

Then the baptism was underway.  The Burmese baptismal candidates, their families, sponsors, and curious onlookers headed outside.  The live action was broadcast inside as well so that everyone could witness.

Now imagine 50 degrees, light wind, cloudy skies, and a pool with two feet of water.  It was cold.  The two pastors got into the water, with the Burmese choir singing. 

Baptism - Coming Up from WaterThe first young man stepped into the water as well.  When the choir stopped, the pastors said a few words, then dipped the young man backward into the water.  He arose a few seconds later drenched and shivering.  By the time he stepped out of the water the choir was singing again.  He was greeted with a warm blanket.

The ritual repeated another four times as two more boys and two more girls received their baptism with the words of the pastors, the song of the choir, the chilly water, and the gift from above.  Everyone present was moved.  This was not a typical Sunday service or a typical baptism.  No, this was special, and we could feel it!

Baptism - Karen ChoirWith the immersion ceremony complete, we headed back inside.  For five young people and two pastors the first step was a change to warmer, dryer clothing.  The baptism was then concluded with the lighting of candles and anointing with holy oil.

The service proceeded to Holy Communion for all present.  Words were spoken in English and the Karen language as we received the bread and wine. After communion was complete, the worship concluded and was followed by a reception.

Through the years sponsoring refugees we’ve been invited to their weddings.  We’ve welcomed their newborn children.  We’ve seen them reunited with family members.  We’ve celebrated graduations.  We’ve witnessed the grand step of becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States.  We have rejoiced in good times and shared some pain in hard times.

Today was the first time we celebrated Holy Baptism with our refugees.  I’m happy I could be a part of this special moment too!

One Response to “Karen Refugee Baptism”

  1. Erin Karner says:

    Dear Jeff,

    I was forwarded a link to your blog by Jo Buth, and I’m so glad I was able to read your words! How amazing an experience the Karen baptismal service must have been. You also have created an awesome blog with excellent words of wisdom for future sponsors of Burmese/Karen and other refugee families. Every time I hear news of Burma or the Karen, I remember all of the wonderful clients I came to know that will always have a special place in my heart.

    Take care, and God bless you and Bryn and others for the wonderful care and help you bring to the new refugees!

    ~Erin Karner
    (formerly with LSS Refugee program)

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