A group of Karen immigrants knocked on the door of Arlington Hills United Methodist Church in Maplewood last summer, asking a simple question: Could we hold religious services here?
The worship space they were using was too small and far away, they explained. And the church they had just approached had no room. The Rev. Tom Biatek, sitting in his office with the group from St. Paul's East Side, quickly agreed.
Within a week, the number of children in the church's vacation Bible school doubled from 20 to 40, Biatek said, as the Karen children joined in the playing and praying. Adults attending Sunday services mushroomed from 20 to more than 60 today.
At the Christmas pageant last Sunday, Joseph was from Myanmar and Mary was Minnesotan. The potluck featured Tater Tots and hot dish — and curried goat and egg rolls.
And after six months of attending an English-language service that was partly in their language, the refugees will have their own services in Karen at the church every other Sunday starting in January.
"It's a lovely thing that's unfolding," Biatek said. "Our worship service has much more energy. [Karen] parents faithfully bring their children to Sunday school ... It's been a real gift."
Fifteen years after they began their long journey to Minnesota, the Karen refugees are putting down religious roots across the east metro. The area is now home to an estimated 10,000 Karen people, who fled their homes in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to escape persecution and torture by the military.
That legacy continues to haunt them. The head of the Karen group who knocked on the door of Arlington Hills United Methodist declined to be interviewed for this story, a likely reflection of that difficult past.
Catherine Solheim, a church member and university researcher who once lived in Thailand, said the group coming to the Maplewood church is primarily made up of families from the East Side.
"Some families have been here five or six years. Some are just arriving," Solheim said. "It's a constant wave. And there's secondary resettlement here. There's a sense that Minnesota is a good place for refugees because of its education and social support."
Families are particularly eager for their children to join Sunday school classes, learn English and meet and make friends with Minnesota children, she said.
The Karen people have generally put down roots with Baptist churches, she said, as the Baptists were active missionaries in their homeland. This is the first group to be part of a Methodist ministry in Minnesota. Said Biatek: "We're in uncharted territory."
The church has adapted its services to welcome the guests. The Sunday gospel is read in both English and Karen, and a summary of the sermon is read in Karen. There's usually a hymn or two in Karen. On New Year's Eve, the Karen will hold their own celebration in the afternoon.
With the new Sunday services starting next month, organized by the Karen leader, Biatek is hoping the connections will remain strong between the two communities — something that will benefit both congregations.
"Their faith is really important to them, and has really blossomed through difficult times," Solheim said. "I want them to find a place where they can worship and learn and study.
"But we will probably learn more in the long run, making us more open to the people around us, and getting a deeper understanding of what it is to be a Christian in the world today."