How a group of refugees saved a church on the brink of collapsing

  • Aug. 21, 2017 6:00 a.m.

SMYRNA, Tenn. – Ye Win was 16 years old when government troops showed up at his family’s home in an ethnic Karen village in eastern Myanmar.

They pointed a gun at his mother, recalls Win, and accused his family of supporting rebels in one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.

The threat against his mom angered Win, who wanted to fight back.

“I knew that was not right,” he said.

Win, who had just finished high school and hoped to become a missionary like his father, was long gone when the government troops returned to the village and burned it to the ground.

It would be 10 years before Win would hear his mother’s voice again, and even longer before he would be reunited with his parents.

During those years, he saw many friends and fellow Karen suffer and die or end up as refugees. More than 100,000 Karen relocated to refugee camps in Thailand, which shares its northwest border with Myanmar. Others, like Win, would be resettled in the United States.

Through the arduous journey, says Win, God was close by.

“We are the people of God – even if we are lost, away from our home, even if we are isolated, we are still close to God,” he said. “God never left our people.”

When Win and about 70 Karen refugees ended up in Smyrna, Tennessee, a small Bible Belt city about a half-hour from Nashville, they found God waiting for them – at a tiny Episcopal church that was on the brink of shutting down. Together, the refugees and a handful of older congregants brought the church back to life.

It’s a story told in “All Saints,” a new faith-based feature film from the Sony-owned AFFIRM Films that opens in theatres this month. The film debuts at a time when many U.S. Christians, fearful about the future, have become skeptical about refugees and have supported the Trump administration’s temporary shutdown of the nation’s refugee resettlement program.

Leaders at All Saints church hope that the film will show that welcoming refugees can be a blessing in disguise. By opening their doors to refugees, churches may find their own faith restored.

All Saints Episcopal Church is the kind of place most people drive by without a second glance.

The modest red brick building on the outskirts of Smyrna doesn’t have a sign with catchy sayings to draw in newcomers or a parking lot full of greeters like the megachurch a half mile down the road.

In All Saints’ pews are copies of an Episcopal hymnal, a hymnal in Karen and copies of “The Book of Common Prayer”— at least one with Karen translations of the prayers handwritten in the margins.

Before the kids are dismissed, the congregation sings “Jesus Loves Me” in Karen, the words spelled phonetically in the bulletin: “Yeh Shu Ay Yah, Yuh Fe Nya.”

It’s a vibrant faith community, filled with promise and new life. But when Ye Win and other refugees showed up a decade ago, the church had fallen on hard times.

The congregation had been limping along after a split, with a handful of mostly older people left behind. Members felt betrayed, angry and hopeless after the split. They’d been left behind with a few months of savings in the bank and a mortgage they could not afford to pay. Like many smaller U.S. churches, All Saints wondered if they had a viable future.

In 2007, Win and a few refugees showed up at the church door, asking if they could attend worship.

Like many Karen, Win and the other refugees were Christians – in this case, Anglicans, part of the same worldwide communion as the Episcopal Church. Win’s father was a missionary, and his grandfather had been the first in his village to become a Christian.

Showing up at church that first Sunday required courage on the part of the Karen, said Steve Armour, screenwriter for “All Saints.” They had been driven from their homeland, seen their families and friends killed and now were surviving in a foreign land they barely understood. Now their future relied on the kindness of fellow Christians.

“That is a tremendous act of faith – to trust that these strangers would be able to do what they said they were going to be able to do,” Armour said.

A turning point at All Saints came when Karen attendees asked if they could plant crops on the church property. All Saints was built on about 16 acres of bottomland, perfect for farming. The Karen wanted to plant crops to feed their families and perhaps help the church out.

It was a kind of miracle, said Michael Spurlock, who was pastor of All Saints at the time. God, he said, had sent more than 70 expert farmers to the church at their hour of greatest need.

Before long, rows of spinach, sour leaf and other vegetables had been planted and were growing behind the church building. When the crops were harvested and sold off, most of the proceeds were donated to the church to help pay the bills.

The church also got a helping hand from John Bauerschmidt, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.

Once the Karen showed up, the bishop decided to invest in the ministry there. All Saints became a mission – meaning it would get financial support from the diocese to help pay its bills. The diocese paid off the mortgage and hired Win as a lay worker at the church.

“When we talk about refugees here in Middle Tennessee, we are not talking about some other people,” Bauerschmidt said. “We are really talking about members of our church.”

Spurlock hopes “All Saints” will bring the plight of the Karen still living in Myanmar to a broader audience. And he hopes it inspires other Christians to open their doors to refugees.

He also hopes they’ll learn that even a small act of faith by a tiny church can lead to something great.

“Sometimes scruffy little churches who have this helpless dependence on God find out that God’s arm is really strong,” he said. “God has a better roadmap for us than we can come up with for ourselves.”

Steve Gomer, the director of “All Saints,” first heard about the church from a newspaper story. He’d been working as a director for television dramas and wanted to get back to making movies.

A friend saw the story and forwarded it to him. They thought it had potential as a feature film.

Gomer eventually connected with Spurlock and spent time volunteering at the church, getting to know members and eventually moving to Nashville. Gomer worked for more than nine years to get the project off the ground.

For Gomer, the movie was a labor of love.

“It shows what community can do,” he said. “And having faith and helping each other – that’s what we are supposed to be doing.”

On a Sunday in mid-July, Robert Rhea stood up to preach at All Saints with a look of mischief in his eye.

Rhea, a doctor turned second-career priest who arrived at All Saints in 2016, was preaching about the Parable of the Sower, which appears in the New Testament.

In that parable, a farmer goes out into a field and throws out the seed by the handful. In some cases, it falls on rocky soil and is eaten by birds. Other seed takes root but is choked out by weeds. When it falls on good soil, the seed bears a rich harvest.

As he preached, Rhea walked down the centre aisle, tossing out candy as he retold the story from the Bible. The candy brought smiles to the faces of members and sounds of delight from kids.

In Jesus’ time, seeds were a valuable commodity, Rhea told his congregation. You couldn’t run down to Walmart to get more, he said. Still, the farmer in the parable sowed it generously, without worrying about the results.

The point, said Rhea, is that the good news of God’s love is for everyone – and that when it takes hold, something remarkable can happen.

You never know what God might do with a small act of faith.

“The Word of God is for everyone. It is love. It is extravagant,” he said. “It cannot be restricted to the four walls of our church.”

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