Carol McVetty

Transcript of Carol McVetty
Interviewee: Carol McVetty
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren, Gerhard Schutte, Mark Lecker, Sarah Altinbasak
Place: North Shore Baptist Church, 5244 N Lakewood, Chicago, IL.
Date: April 3, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Time: 1:02:06

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

[Filmed interview picks up after a few minutes of preliminary discussion]

CM: I think it originally goes back to a racial ethnic prejudice that the majority ethnic group, the Burman people in the central plains area of Burma, have always really looked down upon all these ethnic minorities who live primarily in the mountains. I heard one of our Karen people say to me, “They call us dogs. We call them snakes.” Meaning we don’t trust them. They’re duplicitous. But they call us dogs. And so I think that’s where it began.

Another piece of it…so I’ll tell you a story. I said it was two hundred years ago that Adoniram Judson went to Burma as a missionary, to bring the Christian message. There was a huge celebration of this two hundredth anniversary, this past December (2013) in Yangon. A young woman in our congregation who’s studying to go into ministry, who also happens to be my daughter, she went as our representative to this celebration. There were two hundred foreign guests, most of them Baptists from the United States who, like us, are involved with these folks. But thirty to forty thousand people came from within Burma…and they were all there, mostly ethnic minority peoples who are Baptists. And they came down out of the hills. But a lot of them do live in the Irrawaddy Delta area and the Yangon area – all over. They came from all over – huge celebrations of the arrival of Christianity in Burma and also for them celebrating their different cultures and having dancing and singing all this kind of stuff. And also huge worship services. I mean just a huge celebration convention that lasted about three or four days.

Near the beginning of it, there was an event of several thousand Kachin, not the Karen that we have, but Kachin people who are currently really being repressed and attacked by the military. It’s a conflict primarily over a dam, I think, up on the Chinese border that they’re trying to build a dam to get hydroelectric power that they want to sell to China, but by building the dam they will wipe out these peoples’ land. I mean, it’s going to be flooded, it will be gone. So all these kinds of things, of going in and attacking villages, attacking innocent civilians, all this stuff is going on currently. So a large group of Kachin were at this meeting. They had a meeting where they were giving testimony about the human rights abuses. And some of the American Baptists who were visiting and other dignitaries were there to hear their reports of the human rights abuses that were going on. And I guess some Myanmar officials also came to this meeting. And one of them was the man who is in charge of all these peace accords trying to build peace because there has been, you know, there have been significant changes just in the last couple years, you know, going on in Myanmar. So this guy was there wanting to…listening to the testimony of the human rights abuses. Actually in Kachin State there’s some question that the government has lost control of the military, that the central government doesn’t want them to be doing what they’re doing up in the Kachin State in the northeast. So at the end of this meeting, with people talking about the human rights abuses, the Kachin folks and the other folks there invited the government officials, “Come to our celebration. It starts tomorrow morning and there’s going to be all of this cool stuff. Why don’t you come? Come to the worship services!” Well this guy I’m sure was Buddhist. All the government people are. Well for whatever reason, he came. And later he was talking to the general secretary of our denomination – so the top person. We don’t have bishops, you know…This was like the presiding bishop for us, talking to him and said, “In Myanmar, we are trying to unify the entire country. And for decades we felt to be unified, everybody had to be alike. And so we were trying to get these ethnic groups to be like us: ethnically, religiously, and every other way. They have to be like us. That’s how we get unity. Now the official policy is unity with diversity, which will allow and celebrate the diversity but to all be one. And he said, “Even though that’s my job now, I never believed that was possible until I came to this event and saw all these people, all these Baptists, gathered celebrating their differences – their languages, their cultural backgrounds, and their music. And yet you’re all one and you’re all unified. And clearly very tightly together. And I never believed it could happen. Now I believe it. “

So that’s kind of a long round-about saying that there’s a whole lot of pieces, and part of the pieces for the Karen also is the British government before WW II promised these ethnic groups – particularly the Karen….The Karen were very tightly aligned with the British during WW, whereas Burma and the Japanese were aligned. The British promised these groups a measure of autonomy when Burma got its independence. And they….That didn’t happen. Whoever’s fault that was….Some of them felt they were sold out by the British. Others felt they were sold out by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. But in that transition, in the chaos of that transition, promises were not kept and the ethnic groups felt like they did not have the semi-autonomy they were promised. And the Karen rebelled right away and said, “No. This is what we want. This is what we were promised. We want federalism. We want to be part of Burma but we want some independence to be able to control our local life. And the government, especially after there was a junta in the ‘60s, and when that military regime took over, they targeted the ethnic groups and they picked them off one by one starting with the weakest. And they pretty much polished off all of them except for the Karen because they saved them for last. And then it started in the late ‘80s early ‘90s that the war in Karen State really began. And that was when the refugees began to flee. A lot of our families they’ve been refugees for 20 or more years before they came here.

GS: Yes.

CM: It’s a complicated story and I spent about eight years….

GS: You’ve heard of Rwanda where the Belgians favored one group?

CM: Yeah. Right….

GS: What about Serbs and Croats? And South Africa has been…

CM: Absolutely…yeah…the colonial powers really made a mess of things. You know, they really, really did.

GS: Yeah.

CM: And I think sadly it’s also some of the story of what America has done when we’ve gone in and privileged one group over another and think that we’re doing the right thing, but it just….

DN: Among the Hmong people, who I worked with when I was at Goudy [School], that were…that had different kind of refugee status because the Americans went in and got them to spy and infiltrate, so gave them refugee status, but once they got here, the Hmong had a very difficult time.

CM: Sure. Did they have a hard time?

DN: Yeah…

CM: Because the culture is such a vastly different culture. Now it’s interesting I compare to stories I’ve hear about the Hmong, and some of my observations….although you’d be happy to know the same daughter that went to Burma in September, when she was at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, there were Hmong kids at St. Olaf as students. And that’s a top liberal arts school. So some of the younger generation is doing well. My observation is that many of the Karen are doing quite well, and it’s partly again this missionary history. For better or for worse, the missionaries brought with them an educational system, a way of doing business and figuring things out, you know, how to support churches. When the Karen group first came here, we were invited to a meeting. It was not just the Karen at North Shore, but all the Karen in Chicago. They used a space here at North Shore to have an organizational meeting to form a Karen Community Organization or something. And we sat and watched it. And by golly if they didn’t use Robert’s Rules of Order and the first thing they did was to elect a President. They elected a Vice President, a Secretary, and a Treasurer. And as soon as the Secretary was elected, they set him up with a table, and started taking minutes. I mean, the missionaries taught them our way of doing stuff. And again for good or for ill…. But I think that coming from that kind of background is helping them adjust to life in the United States. Yeah.

DN: What I saw with the Hmong- that they’re very much a hill tribe people….

CM: Um-hm. Yes.

DN: …and the ones I worked with were more shamanistic….

CM: They’re animists. Yeah.

DN: ..and there was a great tension between the children and the women….

CM: Yeah.

DN… because the children, especially in the US educational system…many of the younger women who were working…for the first time they weren’t under the thumb of the elders. So it generated this whole tension. So the opportunity that was here in the United States was good as far as the freedoms they had that they didn’t have before, but it generated great tension between genders and ages and so on.

CM: And that’s true of all the immigrant and refugee groups to some extent. I mean, we see it if you talk to our Hispanic pastor. He would tell you about struggles, generational struggles, because the values of the generation who came from the old country then become….The younger people have very different values. Sometimes one of the sad things you see happening is how the whole power dynamic within the family is turned upside down, because when the children go to school and learn English, they become Americanized. They’re able to function in the world much better than their parents…in this setting much better than their parents. So then they begin to be the mediators for their parents, but it’s not necessarily a healthy thing because you have a ten or eleven year old child mediating between the parents and the school authorities or the parents and the hospital authorities. Well that’s a disrupting of the more natural parent-child relationship. And it can be rough.

GS: From your website, I see you also have Japanese worship….

CM: We do. The story here is that in the early ‘50s…Well at the end of WWII when the Japanese were released from the internment camps - our former Japanese pastor who was here for like 48 years – he called them concentration camps. He didn’t like our nice washed words for these camps. When they were released, they were not allowed to go back to the West Coast. They were being settled in other parts of the country. And Chicago was one place where a lot of Japanese Americans were settled. So there was this group of Japanese Americans who were Christian. And they wanted to have a congregation. They wanted to have a place in Chicago to worship. They went to a lot of places. I know they went to Fourth Pres [Fourth Presbyterian Church]. I can’t remember where else. They were looking for a church that would receive them, where they didn’t really have money to build their own church or whatever. When they came to North Shore, the history that has come down is that the pastor took it to the Board and said, “What shall we do?” Well there was still some pretty strong anti-Japanese feelings after WW II at that point. But one of the key lay leaders stood up, and this was way before that phrase was common, said, “I’m really thinking about this. What would Jesus do?” And so they welcomed those folks in 1954…1952…right around there, and they’re still here. It’s an interesting group, small group, most of them older- 70+. They’ve raised children here and those children are all over, professionals most of them. But now there are also young people in the congregation who tend to be students, or people who have been sent here from Japan to work who happen to be Christian. There are not that many Christians in Japan. But that congregation continues. We had Rev. Masaru Nambu who was the pastor for 48 years and now the successor is a young woman – well not super young – she’s probably 58, but Yuki Scroggins is the Japanese pastor.

GS: It’s interesting. The second generations usually are the ones that assimilate. And then the third generation has, what I’ve read about the Japanese, are the ones that re-appropriate the….the Japanese of the third generation…

CM: That’s very interesting. And what happened with this group, again, because it’s very small – the young people left. They’re on the East Coast, the West Coast, whatever. They’re not around anymore. So I don’t …we don’t….The young people that we do have are Japanese immigrants or temporary people here from Japan. So we haven’t observed….I think the West Coast would be the place. American Baptist has some churches on the West Coast. That would be where to observe those dynamics. I think that would be very interesting.

And the Hispanic congregation is made up of a bunch of people from a whole lot of different countries. They’re not just like Guatemala, Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Cuba. It’s all of them, which is also an interesting dynamic. The current pastor is from Guatemala.

ML: With different dialects from different Spanish speaking countries, do you ever run into language issues?

CM: It’s always been described to me not as different dialects, but as different accents. But they all seem to understand each other just fine. They will joke about it. “You didn’t say that right.” Just like we tease people from the South or something. But that would be a question to ask our Spanish pastor because I’ve not ever heard anything about them not understanding each other. But it would be a good question to ask Pastor Rony.

ML: When I was learning Spanish as an undergrad, I had three different Spanish teachers from three different countries, and they all taught it different. And they all had different tenses and phrases that we would or would not use based on where you are from. I had one teacher who was from Mexico and she said, “You don’t use this tense. You just don’t use it. It’s too formal. It’s not appropriate.” They know what it is but they don’t use it and so a lot of the time they don’t recognize it as quickly. But I had a Spaniard teacher and he said, “You absolutely use it every single time.”

CM: My hunch…what I have heard is there is a bigger difference between the Spanish in Spain and the Spanish in the Americas. But it would be a good question to ask Pastor Rony.

DN: Sometimes language is used as a marker for social identity and Castilian Spanish. As compared to Puerto Rican or Mexican Spanish. And you can hear it if someone said “Jo” or “Yo.” Because we were talking about language and the way language is used.

CM: uh hm…

DN: Do you have any more questions?

GS: Why did they come to Edgewater…the Karen people?

CM: There are five refugee agencies in Chicago and they’re all pretty near here. Refugee One is in Bridgeview Bank on Broadway just below Lawrence. And Heartland Alliance is one. The Pan-African Association is one, and World Relief is a little west of here on Lawrence. I think it might be in Albany Park. But they tend to be …I’m not sure if I can name all five. But they’re all in this area. So when refugees come, they are approved as refugees by the United Nations, and then they are offered settlement. They call it a third country resettlement. Then, to some extent, they may have the opportunity to sign up to go to a particular country. So if they want to come to the U.S., Homeland Security now goes and interviews them. This is something that we studied when I went on this trip. We went and visited all the different steps of the process. They have to pass an interview by Homeland Security to make sure they are not bad people and there’s all kind of health stuff and everything else. Then the State Department identifies….OK, we’re going to take X number of refugees in this fiscal year, which is September 30 to September 30. It’s a very odd year. We’re going to take this number of refugees from this country. They give that number to this coalition of refugee agencies in Washington, D.C. They’ll divide them up. Lutheran Social Services will say, “OK. We can take so many thousand.” And Catholic Charities says, “We can take so many.” And then they divide them all up and then the National Agency will say, and they actually have names, and they will say, “These people we will send to our office in Atlanta, and these people to this place in Kansas, and they parcel them out. I think there’s some negotiation with the local agency, like, “We think we can handle about…” but they’ll just be told, “So many families are coming on such and such a day. Meet them at the airport.” So they’re just brought here. It’s not like they sit down and say, “Oh, I think we’ll come to Chicago and to Edgewater.” They’re placed here. The agencies, when they’re resettling these people…they’re looking for inexpensive rents in housing that’s easy for their social workers to check on everybody. And I’m assuming there’s also some concern about safety so they wouldn’t put them in the middle of a really, really rough area…say like on the west side or the south side.

So refugees tend to be in this part of Chicago. Our Karen folks are clustered …the ones in Edgewater -and Dorothy and I had this conversation - are in a particular building on Kenmore – 6001 –(aside to Dorothy: I think I might have given you the wrong address. ) 6001 N Kenmore. It’s one of those unattractive 4 in 1 buildings built in the ‘60s. But decent on the inside. It’s not really really bad housing. I’ve been in worse. Then some of them live on Pratt near Clark Street. A number of them live up in Rogers Park. A variety of kind of buildings. But they really tend to cluster. Especially once they’re here for a little while, then they’ll relocate. They pick up and move. They like to stick together. Then there’s another cluster near Albany Park. So we have a church bus that helps provide transportation that goes up and down the lake and gets the ones in Edgewater and Rogers Park.

And then the Karen folk, our Karen fellowship said, ‘You know we have these people in Albany Park.” That came a few years later. “They want to come on Sunday.” And we’re – you know – the bus doesn’t have time because it’s making a couple of runs. I mean they’d have to start bringing people at 7 o’clock in the morning in order to have time to go out to Albany Park and all. So we wrestled with it for a long time and finally they said, “We’re going to buy a van.” And they started raising money for a van. And we just let them work on it for awhile. And they got, I think it was at least 1/3 of the cost. They came to us. They said, “We have this much money.” We said, “We want you to get a good enough van that’s going to be safe.” So we applied for a grant and we managed to match it. But we didn’t want to undercut their initiative. I mean this was just really awesome. It was one of the first big things they decided they wanted to do. So they bought a van. It’s parked out back, and that’s what brings the people from Albany Park. And they provide the drivers and they pay for the gas for the van. The church pays the insurance.

DN: So once they come and establish themselves as members of the church, what other kinds of liaisons do you work on with other social service agencies, such as Care for Real? Do you have a food pantry here?

CM: A lot of our response has been kind of informal. When they first came, we were just trying to pay attention to what people needed and responding as we could. But eventually Care for Real became really helpful. We were one of the congregations that started Care for real back in the ‘70s so they’re great partners with us. So if people need food, they’ll usually go there. But very quickly these folks get on food stamps, and so basic food needs are pretty well met. I don’t think there’s any family right now that doesn’t have one adult working. We keep checking on this with our Karen pastor. They’re very good workers and they really work hard.

The first couple of years we did our own coat and winter clothing drive and had a session on where we would teach on how to dress for the winter. I remember the very first year we had this little four year old guy. The young woman who was working with them, she was a seminary intern, she puts a sock on the little boy because they all wear flip-flop. You can’t go out in the snow in flip-flops, you know. And then she shows socks, and then shoes or boots, a hat, a coat, gloves…basically demonstrating this is how you dress for winter because they don’t know. How are they supposed to know? But now Care for Real does that. We will advertise – Send your winter stuff over to Care for Real – and they will do that.

For several years we would have a School Supply Drive and provide a back pack with supplies for all the kids before school started. Now it’s more like we will check for new families who came over during the summer, because they really need that. Most of them are beginning to get a little more on their feet. But we do have a room, over here, where people have clothing or household goods that they’d like to pass on to the Karen. We just put it in there. So when there’s a new family or the leaders realize there’s a particular need, they’ll take them in. They can have whatever’s there that they need.

Early on, we did a little bit even ESL, but we found that there wasn’t really a need. All these agencies provide ESL. There’s government money for ESL. In fact, some of the agencies come to us and beg us to send them students. A lot of it is that moms are taking care of little kids, and people are working long hours, hard jobs. I think it would be great for them to work on their English too, but they don’t necessarily have the time. It seems like there was another thought that flitted through my mind about ways we were helping. One of the key things that is still needed is interfacing with the American bureaucracies.

An approach we settled on several years in was to hire someone within our congregation to work on it. The first person we hired was PC (name protected), a brilliant young man. The story about him is he came around the 4th of July in 2007 – either 2007 or 2008. And the refugee agencies had been desperate for translators. They had nobody who could speak these languages. When they went to meet a new group of refugees who had arrived at O’Hare, this young man walked up and introduced himself in perfect English. “Hi, I’m PC (name protected).” He had taught himself English in a refugee camp by relating to the workers from western non-governmental agencies (NGOs). He said, ‘There were a lot of Swedish NGOs and I tried to learn Swedish. Forget it. It was impossible. There were some German NGOs. I kind of worked on German for awhile.” But he learned English and he came here speaking English. He was hired within two weeks of arriving here. He was a kid who had come here from a refugee camp. That was all the education he had. But he was hired as a translator. All these refugee agencies shared him. He eventually resigned from this job to go to college. And while he was in college, then we had him work for us part time translating for people at the doctor’s office, or report card pick up with the parents. He would sit with us at a meeting and his cell phone would ring constantly. Landlords would call him. We’ve got this whatever going on….constantly interfacing with the bureaucracy. PC graduated from North Park University with a degree in political science. He’s a brilliant, brilliant young man. He went back to Thailand and Burma working with the KNU (Karen National Union).helping with the negotiations, the peace talks, working so the Karen don’t get shafted again because everybody wants their resources that are on their land. They’ve got hydroelectric, they’ve got timber, and they’ve got everything… and trying to protect the people.

So then when he left we hired this other young woman, PSK (name protected) By this time, she was in college, having grown up here through high school here. She had a job working for Whole Foods to help with her college expenses. And we sat her down and said, “Well how about if you quit that job and we’ll pay you to do this work?” And she’s wonderful at it and a great young woman. So that’s one way we feel like we can really be helpful. Because even though there will be volunteers, like retired people from the church that will drive people to the doctor. That’s helpful, but they can’t translate. So having … Just the fact that we make it possible for a young person who’s really getting to be pretty bi-cultural and bi-lingual to free up some time to do this for her community - that’s one of the things that we feel we can do to be helpful.

DN: That’s really empowering.

CM: Yeah.

GS: Very interesting. You mentioned that this guy went back to Burma to become involved in the negotiations and trying to help his people. With some of these people, when we do the research we are sensitive to vulnerable populations. We don’t want to expose them by photographs or…

CM: Right. And I would be that way with him. In fact the name that I use for him is not the name that he uses any more. Although…well…it’s probably known that he’s there, but I won’t tell you any more details about where he is. I appreciate your sensitivity because that’s precisely the situation that we’re in.

DN: That’s one of the reasons we generated this other form for interviews. A young Syrian woman – she not only did not want her face shown - She didn’t want her voice used. Even on the transcript she’s not identified. I don’t even know her name… to protect her anonymity….

CM: Right, well and of course, and right now that’s incredibly hot, unstable and dangerous.

DN: Did you have some questions?

ML: One of our main questions is how do these different minority groups get along with each other? Do the different minority groups, tribal groups, I guess you used the term…(???) Although I guess it’s not the politically correct term or used term. How do they interact with each other knowing that …?

CM: Here, or there?

ML: Either way.

CM: The interactions that I’ve observed have been primarily within the Christian community. Within the Christian community there tends to be a lot of fellow feeling. We’re Christian brothers and sisters. These peoples’ faith is tremendously important to them. They will see that. And for this big celebration we were talking about, they were all together. I do know that when the rubber hits the road, there are sometimes challenges. For example, in church settings. We have almost entirely Karen with a handful of Karenni. They function as one group. There are other Baptist churches, like the Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York that has a significant group of Chin and a significant group of Karen.

I know from there and my personal experience of dealing with both groups that the Karen are very self-effacing. They will not put themselves forward. They are very deferential. They are very quiet. They are very shy. And the Chin, just culturally, are very …rather forceful. They are kind of like the reputations of Americans in Europe. You know we’re kind of the ugly Americans because we’re always brash and loud. The Chin will come right up to you and tell you what they want and when they want it. I’ve observed that sometimes they have a little trouble getting along because the Karen keep feeling like they get railroaded or walked over by the Chin. But in general, here in the U.S. they get along really well because they understand they have a lot in common and they have similar kinds of needs. And while I think that the Myanmar military probably works really hard to keep them fighting each other rather than unified, I know that part of what is being worked on is they are trying even harder to present a unified front in their negotiations with the Myanmar government. I haven’t heard any stories of open conflict between any of these groups. It’s only a question of how… do they always see everything the same way? Probably not. There are political differences – probably yeah.

ML: And that’s one of my questions here. Once they came here, they probably look at everything… stepping back a little bit saying yeah we’ve got differences and we don’t always get along great, but not everyone gets along.

CM: Yes, they formed an organization together and they’re all working together. All the refugees from Burma, whatever ethnic group. And there’s actually a handful that are Burman (the majority group). It’s called the Chicago Burmese Community Center. They’re looking for a program coordinator right now.

DN: I spoke with a young man at First Free…

CM: And they’re housing a Chin group….

DN: Yeah…

CM: And we’re in contact with that Chin group.

DN…and he said that he had originally been working at Pan-African and now he’s the youth pastor for the Chin there. And it’s interesting in the interview that some of the …you don’t necessarily need to be an African to work with the Pan-African people. And you don’t need to be an Asian to work with the Chinese.

CM: When you trying to form a 501-C 3 organization, you need to kind of…it’s very difficult to start from the ground up. And so they’re like nesting within the Pan-African Association, but they certainly have a goal to be independent, but they’re just now building their Board of Directors, and they’re really a very young organization just starting out and they really don’t have the resources to be on their own yet, but that’s the goal.

(Mark excuses himself to leave for a class.)

DN: Sarah, did you have some questions?

SA: Not yet.

DN: OK. One of the things that Tom Robb said when we were talking with him, and we asked him about generalities, was, “Yes. Everybody has a problem, but everybody solves it in some way or another, and as an individual.” He’s very much one to focus on the strengths of the immigrant or refugee internally to help solve problems and to reach out to other people to help solve problems. But when he was talking about issues, he would say, “Well do the husbands not get along with their wives? Well yes, but then my neighbors don’t get along either,” calling attention to commonality and universality of the human condition.

CM: I think one thing that we really notice as church people, and part of what you do as a pastor is you’re always recruiting volunteers. There are tons and tons of things to do within the community. You’re always looking for who might have the capacity to do this. And the awareness that people arrive with needs, but they also arrive with gifts. They bring great gifts to our community. Whether it’s the Japanese or the Spanish speaking, or the Karen folk here at North Shore, and we also have a significant number of Filipinos, but they don’t have their own worship because they come here speaking English and all kinds of people from other places. But you know people have gifts. They bring gifts.

We’re especially able to see it in the young people because they learn the language so quickly. Amazing. So many talented people. The fourth Sunday of every month in the Karen worship is youth Sunday. They give all the leadership to the young people. And the young people get up and do the whole service. We have the Karen singing in the English worship twice a month, second and fourth Sundays of the month…although this month because it’s Palm Sunday, they’ll sing on Easter and Good Friday. And when they sing…I think the Karen…I think they’re born singing. They make this incredible song and our music director trying to analyze for me the way they sing…how they use their voice…they produce their voice somewhat differently than Western classical musicians are trained to do. And she was describing it to me. I don’t know what it is. But it produces a different kind of resonance that’s just amazing. They sing and….They come with gifts like Tom said, as well as needs.

DN: And he also said that it’s a privilege to watch them grow.

CM: Oh Absolutely! It’s been an amazing experience to watch from the time the first few families came. That was in the fall. Then that summer….The refugee agencies do most of their resettling in the summer months. We came back from vacation in the summer and all of a sudden there are like fifty more people in worship.….I remember one time sitting out in the courtyard and a group of people were waiting for the bus for the second load to go home, and watching people …and thinking we’re watching a community form right before our eyes. These people have come from different refugee camps and they don’t know each other and they’re forming a brand new community right in front of our eyes. It was amazing.

GS: That’s very interesting. They themselves do a self-selection. I have the impression that bureaucracies just divides these people up. You go here. You go there and so on. But since you describe the demography of the Karen people there, 80% of them Baptist, then they self select in coming here….

CM: No, no. In Chicago, there are Karen refugees who are Baptist, who are animists, who are Episcopalian, who are 7th day Adventists. At that meeting when they were trying to form a broader community organization, when they went around and introduced themselves - and I had someone translating in my ear during that- they introduced themselves by their name, what camp they had been in, and what religion they were. But the ones who come here are the ones that landed in Chicago and happen to be Baptists. Or they landed in Chicago and they want to be a part of this community. Because there are families who are here every Sunday who are Buddhist. There are some who are just not Christian. And that may mean they are animists. But Pastor Roger, if you meet him, he’s just the gentlest soul and he is so wise. And he says, “Well you just love them.” And they come and they hear stories of Jesus. And then eventually some of them have become baptized. But not all of them. There’s one particular family that I know is Buddhist. The father doesn’t come. He probably works on Sunday. But the mother’s here and all of her five children. And the kids have been active in young group and they come to Sunday school. But none of the children have been baptized yet. But they’re just embraced by the community.

DN: So for them, do you think it’s more of a community first, and a spiritual experience second?

CM: I think so. I think that’s part of it. It’s puzzling and surprising to you because among Americans, that just wouldn’t happen. You wouldn’t have an American who wasn’t a Christian coming to church every Sunday. So I think a lot of it is this is a place where I find support. This is a place where I can hang out with people who speak my language. I can be a part of this community. How much is I - I am somewhat aware - that Buddhism is not a religion with defined boundaries, the way that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are. It’s kind of eclectic….

DN: Well it can be a religion, a very formal thing, but it can also be a spiritual practice. It can embrace..

CM: Right. When you get into Southeast Asia you find people who are essentially culturally Buddhist. People say they are Buddhist, but how much do they really practice? How much do they really know? So, yeah there are Karen in Chicago who aren’t here on Sunday, and who Pastor Roger would not see as part of the church community and he would know many of them. And PSK, our refugee assistant would try to help when they call her. And the Chicago Burmese Community Center is doing similar work trying to help all of them. But there are even some that attend here that are not Baptist or even Christian. There are some Karen at an Episcopal church in Rogers Park and there were some in an Evangelical Free Church in Albany Park. We have run into one or two people whose relationship with the Karen under the guise “What can I do for you? “is more “What can you do for me?” There was one pastor out in the Albany Park are that had got the Karen into his church and then when they wanted to go somewhere else got really even verbally abusive. He came here to an event. We held a resource fair for the folk. This was quite a few years ago. He came and was cussing us out because we were stealing his people….

GS: Yes, sheep stealing. You know in some nations they call it sheep stealing.

CM: Yeah. They do call it sheep stealing and among ethical pastors, it’s really looked down upon. We’re just like…we don’t control them. They make up their mind about where they want to go. But they were coming to us and saying, “This guy is scary.” But that’s unusual. Most of the people in this city who are working with vulnerable folks really are doing it because they care about them.

DN: That leads to another question that we’re considering – all of us – working on this project – the push and pull of people who come here. Many of the immigrants come here because they’re pulled by the attractiveness of the economic opportunities and freedoms here. And then the refugees are pushed here from out of their countries. And I’m just wondering if in your work over the years you’ve seen differences between the two groups?

CM: Differences in need? Well, yeah. Throughout the years- I’ve been here seventeen years- throughout those years I have seen a trickle of Spanish speaking new families, new families straight from wherever. They tend to come because they already have extended family here. And so they come into this safety net. And they’re helped by their extended families. They may have great need when they arrive, but they also have some immediate support.

It’s hard to describe even the look of the Karen families that will… that Pastor Roger or whoever will bring here, that have arrived just in the last week or two. We talk about deer in the headlights. I mean they’re like (look of shock on face) you know. It’s so overwhelming. And having been there and seen how the refugee camps….They recreate the village from the mountains in Burma, but it’s like a whole bunch of villages scrunched together. One of the camps we visited had fifty thousand people. It’s thatched huts, these little thatched houses that they build themselves, bamboo poles and all. It’s all bamboo thatched schools they build, churches, their outhouses. There’s a well where they line up their little water cans to get - pump the water out of the well. Only a handful of administrative buildings had electricity, but none of the houses…so you’ve got people who are coming here from….that have never seen…They’ve seen cars and stuff because the NGOs will come in those, but they’ve never seen an escalator. They’ve never seen…they don’t know what a Western toilet is. The custodians have told us some stories about the kids, you know, especially the kids trying to use Western toilets because they don’t know how and kind of make a mess, but you deal with it.

DN: A learning process….

CM: It’s a learning process. Yeah. But the level of disorientation - the level of dislocation - just seems to be so much greater.

DN: Well I think if you’re an immigrant there’s a certain amount of choice of leaving and a certain amount of feeling that maybe you’re going to connect to in some way…that you can go visit, that you can Skype your relatives or something. But if you’re a refugee you’ve been torn asunder from that. And even the physical place is one thing. But with ethnic cleansing, neighbors that you thought you knew are not the same people you thought to be. So there’s a whole shift, I would think…

CM: There’s a great deal of dislocation. One of the really cool things is to see the ones who have earned their citizenship. It’s wonderful. There’s nothing happier than going to a citizenship swearing in ceremony and we’ve gone to a handful of those so far. One of the first things folks want to do, once they get that American passport, now is to go back and visit. Because it’s calmer now than it was, and so going back to visit is possible. And Pastor Roger got home, I believe yesterday, from a two week trip to go back. He was hoping to visit where he went to school, in the Yangon area. He had college training at an institute of theology, and I can’t think of the name of it right now, but a Baptist seminary in Yangon and was originally from some place in the delta. And then when he was assigned, or got, a church in the Karen state, and then the hostilities broke out and he had never come back. So he had never….And he was hoping, I don’t know if he was able to go back and see relatives and friends that he hadn’t seen since the 1970s I guess. I mean that’s so exciting for them to then have that empowerment of American passport.

GS: Yeah.

DN: Sarah, can you think of anything else you might like to ask Carol? You know, it’s a lot to take in all at once.

SA: Yeah, I’m just….

CM: It would be intriguing from a psychological perspective we do have people who have post-traumatic stress symptoms, but where they really can’t access counseling, unless they were to do it through a translator. That’s something that we’ve been very much aware of - of a need that we haven’t been able to fulfill. There is one woman in particular who kept having what she thought was both heart or asthma problems and kept being rushed to the hospital. And finally they diagnosed that she was having panic attacks and we’re presuming it was trauma and stuff. But how can you really help somebody? We had - another woman was hospitalized at one of the psychiatric units at Swedish Covenant and we went over to try to help because she was just really distraught. She kept saying that you have to let me go because my children are home alone. The nurses were telling us that if she really means that they’ll go and take her children into protective custody. We’re like, “Oh, goodness!” I mean, she’s saying that because she wants to go. She thinks that will convince you to let her go, but we know that she had a sister and a brother in the same building. We know that those children are being cared for. But we were trying to kind of mediate that whole situation.

DN: When I was at Goudy… you have the animists, the shamans, who were trying to heal someone. And we had kids that would come…and some of the teachers would say they were being beaten because they had been “cupped.” Do you know what “cupped” means, Sarah? Where you take this cup and it creates a vacuum that is supposed to draw out the evil spirits….

CM: Have you read the book, This Spirit Catches Me and I Fall Down? I think that’s it. A really really famous book about these cultural differences and it’s about a Hmong child who had epilepsy, I think out in San Francisco, and the struggle of the family…it’s like a case study of that family’s interaction with the medical community. Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. Everybody is trying to do their best. The cultures are so different. And just the institutional strictures of American medical system just…it just…

DN: Carol, what’s the name of the book?

CM: It’s This Spirit Catches Me and I Fall Down. I think that’s it. [Note: Correct title is The Sprit Catches You and You Fall Down.] It’s assigned in colleges a lot. Maybe just like in cross cultural classes. One of my daughters read it in college. So it’s been out for awhile. And I think the person who wrote it is either a well known journalist or sociologist or psychologist or something like that – very very insightful book. And it’s about a Hmong child dealing with epilepsy.

DN: When I was interviewing the Hmong people for my dissertation, I was examining the differences in health practices. And I asked Hmong people if the mind dominated the body, thinking of the Cartesian dualism we think about in our society. And they said, “Oh, of course it does,” because they were thinking of “mind” as being “spirit.” If you went to a shaman, or an herbalist, or a wise woman, you could actually have someone’s spirit attacked. So you had to be very careful with your mother-in-law and your….a very common feeling among many different cultures. But coming from my Western perspective, I was very dismayed that they would say that the mind would control the body until I started thinking about it from a more cross-cultural anthropological viewpoint.

GS: Um hm. The main thing that we were discussing here is the art of listening. Let them tell their story. Of course, they have to use English. It would be better if we knew their language. But that is the art of listening - that they can express themselves without our asking questions. Because we don’t have the same assumptions. We don’t have the same meanings attached to words. Part of the outcome of this project, I think, is to come to a greater understanding, and maybe to help many of the white, middle-class population here to notice the diversity and enhance their ability to understand, their tolerance.

CM: Right. And I think that many of the people that I know in Edgewater have that. They’re here because they want to be here and that they love that everybody’s not the same. Often it leads to joyful appreciation, which maybe just goes past tolerance. But people will just kind of shrug their shoulders around…about some of the crazy stuff that happens – like “Well, you know…we live in this fascinating….”

DN: Well look at the formation of E.C.R.A. [Edgewater Community Religious Association] years ago.

CM: Right. We see that a great deal here in this church among the congregants. When people are part of a congregation we have to find a way to get along. Having been pastor of other places before, when people are so protective of – “Well this is the way we’ve always done it before.” Or “By golly this is the right way. This is the only way.” People here are just so much more flexible. I mean, “Oh, OK.”

I think there’s a kind of shaping. It’s almost like rocks being tumbled in a tumbler that there is a way that a lot of the crabby rough edges are smoothed off when you’re being in community – real community – with people who are very very different from you. And I see that happening here in this church among all of us. We learn so much from one another and we have structured – In the past, we’ve had very structured opportunities for people to be in a small group and have conversations about various things. They’re kind of structured conversations. The different times we offered it – we’d offer a series. You’d sign up. You’d be put in a group. There’d be maybe four different times the group would meet. People could sign up – say an English speaking person – could sign up for a group that was just English, or was English that was going to be translated into Spanish or Japanese, but they could also sign up for a group that was Spanish translated into English or Japanese translated into English. And some of the folks would do that. They would deliberately put themselves in what would be, out of their comfort zone, because they wanted that challenge. They found it really interesting. It’s intriguing what goes on.

(To Dorothy) If you’re here on Sunday, you will see…I’m going to really just very quickly tell you…on the communion table, there will be a bright purple cloth with stripes on it. That cloth is Karen weaving. Weaving is their main art form. We asked the Karen folks to make us a communion cloth at a point where we decided that we didn’t like the white one that we had for fifty years. So it has a cross woven into the top that you can’t see from the congregation. It was presented with great ceremony by the Karen folks as a gift to the church. And that’s the cloth that we put on the table and gather around for communion once a month. And it’s again – it’s that community offering their gifts to the whole.