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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sowing to the Spirit


Pwee tah luh tha a ghaw, pwee tah goh mu nee, pwee tah tha ga nyaw klee, pwee luh gleh daw boh… Sow to the spirit, sow everyday, sow the seeds of mercy, sow on every road… As we finish singing, Reverend Tha Hgay launches into a long prayer remembering his family, the Karen community in Sweden and around the world, and even his travelling companion, myself. His grandchildren stir about the room eating their late night snack of sliced Swedish meatballs microwaved on flat rounds of white bread. At the conclusion, he scolds them for their lack of attention and stillness during the family prayer.
This 19th century hymn is Reverend Tha Hgay’s chosen anthem for our trip here in Sweden.  We sing it every evening before bed. Here I am asked to give up the control of my own time, which is usually a treasured part of my work in Comer. When we are to go to someone’s home for prayer or there is a Swedish elder or church leader coming to visit, it is expected that I will be present on short notice to share about Jubilee and the Karen community in Georgia.
Beyond those obligations I have plentiful free time to rest, run on the trails around Alingsås, and read in little coffee shops around town. There is something so freeing in doing nothing and giving up ownership of your time. As at odds as coffee and baked goods in a Swedish café feels to my usual lifestyle it is somehow becoming a birthplace for compassion. One month without the dreaded frequent phone call, “Na kluahh—Are you free?” is such a gift, and yet it makes me realize how hardened and short on patience I have become to such requests. With distance I see the savior complex that generates the fear of saying no.
…Luh pa meh nya ga htee plaw boo pweh daw bu…We will soon see the field full of rice.
I wonder how these 19th century hymns sound to the Karen youth coming of age eating pizza and speaking Swedish. Is there any nostalgia to rice paddies and casting seeds on the side of the road for those who might come after you fleeing through the jungle? Their new life of Scandinavian affluence and education feels quite distant from this simple worldview.
Masanobu Fukuoka writes in his agricultural classic: “To the extent that trees deviate from their natural form, pruning and insect extermination become necessary; to the extent that human society separates itself from a life close to nature, schooling becomes necessary. In nature, formal schooling has no function.”
I hear via email about my garden growing thousands of miles away with several good friends turning on the irrigation occasionally and pulling weeds while I am away. I remember the stressful rush to get everything planted before our departure, and give thanks now that plants do not grow with such grasping but by the miraculous gift of life bestowed by God slowly and without notice unless we take the time to see the genesis unfolding before us (or imagine it from overseas). Our indulgence of our ego is the greatest thing that separates us from our nature. Really we are not so important. Our work is not so much important as is our ability to receive the gift of life. The garden is one very good place to see this.
Reverend Tha Hgay’s priority is maintaining a unified Karen church across the new diaspora. These are the seeds he is planting here in Sweden, and they are certainly good news to many of the people here desiring connection with their family and friends in America. Agriculture and community are certainly a significant piece of why he settled with his family in Vesta, just a thirty-minute drive from Comer, but the larger vision is a new generation of Karen Baptists keeping the faith from Thailand to Scandinavia.
…Pwee tah luh tah hkee lah, pwee du mu law nu, pwee daw oh bwee ta ghay, du luh tah mah wee—Sow that which is good, sow until the sunset, sow and do not rest until the work is finished… “The younger white brother must guide us on the big steel bird,” Reverend Tha Hgay tells me, “this is the Karen proverb.” I look at him incredulously.
I want to see the Comer Karen community be able to thrive from a life giving agricultural livelihood. These are the seeds I want to plant. Whether or not they germinate is another matter. In order to plant these seeds I will orient my life in Comer more around the garden and community organizing and less around assisting families finding housing, accessing social services, and going to appointments. So much of this work is wound up in an economy that works against a simple agricultural livelihood. In order to invite the Karen into such a livelihood here I need to move more towards it myself.
Though it is ultimately the choice of resettled refugees themselves what culture they grow into, third country helpers play an important role in sowing these seeds. This is evident in the difference between Karen culture in Sweden and in America. It is important for those of us in these roles to be cognizant of our sowing and plant the seeds of a better society that we want to see grow rather than the seeds of our own cultural effluence (e.g. debt, materialism, workaholism, individualism, etc.) We cannot decide the germination of these seeds, but we can use the waste of our civilization to fertilize the ground for resettlement, and the emergence of a new culture. “To be here, caring for a small field, in full possession of the freedom and the plenitude of each day, every day—this must have been the original way of agriculture,” writes Fukuoka.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Karenska


Beads of rain stream down the outer pane of the airplane window. I lean over the person in the middle seat to gaze out into the gray. The letters STOCKHOLM ARLANDA stand on a precipice, dimly illumined by backlighting and the glow of the sun rising behind the clouds. As a child I used to slide my finger down the nondescript gray terminal diagram of Arlanda in the back pages of the airline magazine. I would imagine myself coming down through the clouds in Sweden, with IKEA as my reference point. Perhaps it was this childhood fantasy returning to the surface when I said yes to Reverend Tha Hgay and his wife’s invitation to accompany them on their month-long trip to Sweden to visit their children and grandchildren resettled there.
We make our way through customs and board our connecting flight to Göteborg. When we arrive in the airport an Asian man with a Bluetooth earpiece stands waiting at the bottom of the escalator. “A weh may ya po kwa duh—He is my son!” declares Reverend Tha Hgay as he steps from the escalator and rushes towards the man. This is the first time he has seen his oldest son Ler Wah in seven years. A clean-cut young Asian man in a pea coat stands off to the side. “…And this is my grandson!” The young man holds out his hand to me, “I am Solomon.” “Zac,” I reply, thankful to meet someone my age who will be around for our stay.
Solomon came to Sweden with his family in 2008 at age twenty. The Swedish government placed them in Övertorneå in the north of Sweden along the border with Finland. He now lives with his uncle’s family in Alingsås, just outside of Göteborg in the south of Sweden. There are about five Karen families living in this quaint Scandinavian town of 25,000. Thirty minutes away in the neighboring town of Vårgårda there are another five or so Karen families. Solomon’s uncle works as caretaker for an incapacitated elderly man, however most Karen adults in the area are not working but, attending practicums in hopes of soon being hired. The Swedish government covers their living expenses.
We pull up in their Chevrolet hatchback to a dreary public housing complex. “Most of my friends from the camp who live in the U.S. are already married and having children,” he says. Most young Karen people in their twenties here in Sweden attend special schools to learn Swedish, vocational skills, or prepare for college. Educational opportunities in the U.S. are much more sparse for refugees resettled as young adults. Mostly if you are over 18 when you arrive in the U.S. it is straight to the chicken plant. Solomon can already speak Swedish and so after working for sometime in a school in the north, he is now training to be a taxi driver here in Alingsås.
We ascend a spiral staircase to the third-floor and enter a small, but tidy European apartment with two bedrooms and one bathroom. A toddler rushes to the door and gazes up with big eyes for the first time at his grandfather and grandmother. Ler Wah’s youngest son, Daniel, was born here in Sweden just two years ago. As Tha Hgay and Paw Hser settle in and delight in their newest grandchild, I follow Solomon and his two school-age cousins, Naw Ga Mwee and Thaw Eh Mwee out to the football yard behind their apartment building.
Black soil shows through the bald spots in the olive-colored winter grass. As we enter the field and begin kicking the ball around, a young African girl wearing a hijab comes to join us, followed shortly by a Congolese boy and two Serbian girls who look at me strangely. Solomon tells them something in Swedish. “Vad heter du?” the older Serbian girl asks me. “I don’t speak Swedish. I’m sorry,” I tell her. “What’s your name?” she asks again.

There is no Karen church in Sweden and so with a Karen pastor visiting the country, he naturally must visit every Karen home in Alingsås and Vårgårda to pray with the families. On Sunday Ler Wah’s family hosts a thanksgiving worship service in celebration of the birthdays of two of their children. Something they have not been able to do for quite some time. Solomon and I offer two songs for the service, one in English and another in Karen. Tha Hgay stands and preaches passionately to the living room full of Karen from the two neighboring locales. After the service there is a meal served. Solomon hands me a prepared plate with boiled potatoes, vegetable salad, and stewed beef with mushrooms. “No rice?” I ask in amazement. “Svenska a ta aw—Swedish food,” he responds with a smile, “Na aw beahh—Is it delicious?” “May, ya aw beh ra—Yes, it is very good!” I reply, “I have just never seen Karen people in the U.S. serve food like this.”

Just a few days before our departure from the U.S., Rev. Tha Hgay presided over a thanksgiving service at Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw’s house in celebration of Wisdom and Hae Tha Blay’s birthdays. The fare was typical of a Karen celebration. Hei Nay Htoo spent all day Saturday acquiring and butchering a pot-belly pig and a large goat, then stayed up all night next to the fire grilling pork and tending to bubbling cauldrons of goat meat and meh teh leh aye kah—goat shit soup.

A Karen man with a long face and a goatee sits on the couch across from me and picks at the marzipan and whipped cream on a slice of birthday cake. He looks at me sternly for a moment before starting abruptly in immaculate English, “After we get Swedish citizenship, do you know how difficult it is to get a work permit in the United States?”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jubilee Neighbors Summer Camp 2013

Now recruiting campers, counselors, junior counselors, and volunteers...
Contact me for registration and application forms.
See the flyer below for more information.