Refugees Plant New Life in a Dying Church

If you’re looking for a movie go see this weekend, you might have noticed a showing of All Saints at your local theater. Based on a non-fiction book of the same name, All Saints tells the story of a reverend, a crumbling church, and a group of refugees who brought growth and community.

In the book written by Michael Spurlock and Jeanette Windle, you learn about Spurlock’s journey as the new reverend of the All Saints Episcopal Church and the group of Karen refugees from Myanmar that came to Smyrna, TN seeking safety and a place to worship.

In an article about the film and the All Saints church, Bob Smietana of the Washington Post writes,

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.

Lisa Lehr, a former merchandise manager for Christian education here at Cokesbury and current sales manager of ministry and custom products at Abingdon press, became a member of the All Saints church in 2014. She explains that when she arrived the first thing she noticed was that almost all parts of the Episcopal service were done in both English and Karen. She soon learned the how the Karen members brought new life to the vibrant church she was attending.

“What I gathered was that because of the Anglican split, the church was down to about 15 people,” Lisa said. “And they were planning on closing or selling the church, but the people that stayed were committed to the church. They had been there a long time. Then these Karen visitors showed up.”

However, the fresh influx of new church members is not the only new life these Karen refugees brought to All Saints. Karen attendees asked if they could make use of the 16 acres of land the church owned to grow crops. Fresh fruits and vegetables were expensive and farming provided them an opportunity to not only feed their families but to help out the struggling church that welcomed them. The Washington Post reports,

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.

Lisa Lehr explains that because of the Karen community, All Saints is unlike any other church she has attended. “It’s a unique place. It’s a place where if you are going there to just be fed, to just consume food (the food of faith), you’re probably going to be uncomfortable after a while. If you’re there to feed and be fed, that’s the place to be.”

As the Christian education coordinator at All Saints, she explains that another reason the church is so unique is because the young adults (teens to early twenties) are incredibly engaged and helpful. Whether it’s through volunteering, assisting with VBS, or providing essential translation for older Karen members, the Karen youth of this congregation are proving their dependability.

“You can really count on the youth to step up and do things. If you need something done, the youth are ones that are going to step up and do it. They are such hard working folk. They’re probably the best kids I could think of.”

Becoming a part of this community has made Lisa more aware of the horrifying pain and struggle refugees go through before finding safety. When discussing the current global refugee crisis, she explains that we as nation and as a Christian people must do more to help.

“Refugees need a place to go. And they need a place to go in a hurry because they are not safe. There are people here who are willing to step up and help. We need to welcome these folks with open arms.”