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.