About three years ago, Aung Tun, an Adventist Karen refugee from Thailand, was living in Atlanta and heard God calling him to move to Wisconsin. His wife felt the same calling, so they packed up their belongings and moved with their three young children to Milwaukee. He found a job working six days a week from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Then on Sabbaths he would drive to worship with the nearest Adventist Karen church in Rockford, Illinois, some two hours away.
“I felt God wanted me to start a church here in Milwaukee,” 26-year-old Aung said through an interpreter. “And soon, we started meeting in a home with two other Karen families.” Today, Aung Tun is a Bible worker/lay pastor of this budding group of 20-30 Karen refugees, while still working long hours the other six days a week.
According to Bill Wells of Advocates for Southeast Asians and the Persecuted (ASAP), a ministry that works to establish church plants among unreached, refugees and persecuted groups, this Adventist group represents a small portion of the 5,000 Burmese refugees who have settled in the Milwaukee area over the last 10 years. The Burmese people are comprised of various ethnic tribes including Karen, Chin, Zomi and Mizo, of which the Karen form a significant portion.
In February of this year, the Milwaukee Karen group was formally organized as a group and in July the Milwaukee Central Church graciously opened its’ doors for them to conduct weekly worship services. “Our church was very happy to have them,” said Pastor Sheldon Bryan, who ticked off a growing list of other refugee groups Milwaukee Central has supported over the years. Milwaukee Central has held joint communion services and are intentionally exploring other avenues of fellowshipping together. “It’s been great strengthening them while giving our church a better feel for working with refugee groups,” said Sheldon. Once a month the Rockford Karen church members join the Milwaukee group, and this, Sheldon says, has been very helpful.
Last Sabbath, as Wisconsin Conference President Mike Edge and his wife, Wisconsin Communication Director Juanita Edge visited the congregation they learned of the hardships God had brought this group of believers through, and they couldn’t help getting a little teary as they heard them sing in their native language, “Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go…,” and “There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God…”
After enjoying a meal of Karen cooking, everyone gathered around the baptistry and celebrated the baptism of three new members to their group. “What a blessing!” said Juanita. Pastor Stephen Po, one of the two ordained Karen Seventh-day Adventists pastors in the United States, conducted the baptisms of Paw Tha Shee, He Ler Paw and Me Lar Htoo.
Aung Tun is currently studying with two Buddhist Karen people in Milwaukee, and said that the work is slow and hard, as the Buddhist religion is very strong among the Karen people. Nevertheless, he and the rest of the congregation are determined to prayerfully continue their faith journey forward on their knees.
Juanita Edge, Wisconsin Conference Communication director, with Lake Union Herald staff.