Immigrant, Pastor, Missionary
God is at work among the Karen people in Fort Wayne, Ind., through the first Lutheran pastor from their community.
A diverse group of people gathered beneath a tent outside of Southwest Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind., on July 22, 2023. They braved the summer heat to celebrate a momentous occasion: the ordination and installation of Soe Moe, an immigrant from Burma and the first Lutheran pastor from their community.
Soe Moe’s story begins in the jungles of Thailand, although he is not exactly sure where. When he was born, his parents were living in a refugee camp on the border between Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Thailand. He remembers running around the jungle with friends, but he also remembers fearing the Burmese military that often attacked the encampments.
Soe Moe comes from the Karen people, a Burmese tribe that first heard about Christianity from missionaries in the early 19th century. Those early missionaries experienced great success among the Karen people, in part, because the tribe already taught a Genesis-like creation story and believed that they would one day find a book that would teach them how to worship God.
Due to a combination of religious belief and political circumstance, a frequent issue in post-colonial countries, the Karen have faced persecution. When the British left Burma following World War II, the Burmese government and Karen guerrilla groups engaged in regular conflict, causing many to flee to the Thai border. Thailand has acted as an intermediary state and helped many of these refugees resettle in other lands, such as the United States.
Struggles in a New Land
In 2008, Soe Moe’s parents relocated to the U.S. with the help of the Thai government. They first settled in Allentown, Pa., but quickly moved to Fort Wayne, which has a significant Karen population.
This new life in America came with opportunities and struggles. When Soe Moe came to the U.S., he lacked formal education and had trouble in school. He also was not interested in attending church; he went because his parents forced him to go.
Due to his struggles with school, he began attending a homework outreach program offered by Southwest Lutheran Church. For most of its history, Southwest has been involved with ministry to immigrants. When the church started the homework program, a congregation member moved into the apartment complex where the Karen lived.
“She slept in the back room and had a classroom in the front,” said the Rev. Joseph Ferry, senior pastor of Southwest.
From the apartment, Southwest members helped immigrant children with homework and adapting to a new culture and language. Southwest also provided a Bible class for the children and invited them to church.
As Soe Moe adjusted to life in the U.S. and the new congregational life at Southwest, he began to enjoy attending church. He also heard the other children talking about a summer camp.
“This sounds like a very different type of camping than I am used to,” he remembers thinking.
Camp Lutheranhaven and LAMB
Soe Moe decided to give this American-style camping a try. He attended All Nations Outreach, a summer camp program for refugee children put on by the Lutheran Agency for Mission to the Burmese (LAMB) in collaboration with Camp Lutherhaven, a Lutheran camp in Albion, Ind.
Soe Moe noticed an immediate difference in the camp: Everyone was free to share their faith. “When we share our faith [in Burma], people thought that we’re crazy because how could you believe in a god when you’ve never seen him?” Soe explained. But at summer camp, everyone was “free to talk … and get to know Jesus.”
His time at camp led Soe Moe to seek out other opportunities for service. Tim Jank, Lutherhaven’s camp director, said Soe Moe “is very good with children, and he just has a way with them. … They know him by name even though he might not have been their counselor.”
Camp Lutherhaven provided the training ground for Soe Moe to start sharing his faith with others. “He wanted not just to learn, which he did, but also to share his faith,” Jank said. As he took on more responsibility, he became more confident in sharing the message of Christ. And as happens in many Lutheran summer camps, he received encouragement to consider a vocation as a full-time church worker.
The Road to Ministry
Through the encouragement of various pastors and church workers, and due to an injury that prevented him from entering the military as he originally planned, Soe Moe began to consider how he might serve in the church. With his pastor’s help, Soe Moe enrolled in the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT) at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. The program specializes in preparing pastors and deaconesses in immigrant communities in North America.
The EIIT course of study takes place over four years. Soe Moe acknowledges that the work was hard and stretched him in new ways, especially as one who speaks English as a third language. The program “has been a blessing. … [My instructors] have been gracious and merciful to help me become a pastor. … It has been amazing,” he said. On top of his classes, Soe Moe also served as a vicar at Southwest Lutheran Church during the program.
But just because he was Karen did not mean the community immediately welcomed him as a spiritual and religious leader. In Karen culture, a man does not usually become a pastor until later in life, often as late as 50 or 60 years old. The Karen have great respect for their elders and believe one must have a certain level of experience to preach and teach. Thankfully, many in the Karen community were thankful that Soe Moe spoke their language and could teach them from God’s Word, so they welcomed his service among them.
His age helped him connect with the children and youth of the Karen community. He continues working with LAMB and All Nations Outreach summer camp. Now that he’s ordained, he has taken up additional duties as the youth pastor at Southwest, focused especially on teaching and preaching to the Karen youth.
Missionary to the Karen
Under the tent at Southwest at his July ordination, members of the church and the Karen community sang hymns in English and in Karen. The Rev. James Keller, who founded LAMB over two decades ago, preached in English, and his words were translated into Karen. And in all this, they saw a small picture of the eternal feast of the Lamb, people of varied nations gathered to celebrate the new life given to us in Christ.
Keller sees Soe Moe’s ordination as a key step and milestone in LAMB’s work. Part of Soe Moe’s call to Southwest Lutheran Church is to serve as a missionary to the Karen in Fort Wayne.
“It’s time to turn it over to the younger leaders that we have been training and for me to step out of the way so that they can lead,” Keller said before the service. “These [Karen] kids are growing up here, and they’re able to move in and out between cultures. That then broadens the outreach because it’s not just limited to people from Myanmar, but it’s for anybody.”
The opportunity to share Christ’s love with his own people fills Soe Moe with joy. “It’s been a blessing to learn and to grow in this community,” he said. He also asks for prayers: “Please pray for the Karen people and the Burmese people in Fort Wayne … that they may draw closer to Jesus and that they will understand the Lutheran faith … and to love one another as God has done for us.”
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Pray with Us
Father in heaven who watches over Your sheep, bless and guide the work of the Rev. Soe Moe, Southwest Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Agency for Mission to the Burmese, that in all they say and do, they would point the Karen people to Christ and Him crucified; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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Rev. Roy S. Askins
Director of Editorial for LCMS Communications and executive editor of The Lutheran Witness.