Karen event draws crowd
WORTHINGTON -- It was a special day Monday for Worthington's Karen population, as a crowd in the hundreds gathered inside St. Mary's School to celebrate unity within their culture as well as in their new-found community.
With many clad in traditional Karen costumes, a wrist-tying ceremony -- the first to ever take place in Worthington -- attracted citizens of all ages to an event that included plenty of music and dancing, not to mention food and family fun afterward. Among those speaking during the event was Jenny Anderson-Martinez, the human resources director at Worthington's JBS plant.
"I know that it has been a long time for this event to happen -- many years," Anderson-Martinez said. "We at JBS and the union are very happy to sponsor this event today. For me, the Karen people will always have a special place in my heart."
Anderson-Martinez recalled how the first Karen people arrived in Worthington 5 1/2 years ago.
"Many of you probably came out of Lifetrack Resources in St. Paul," she said. "Lifetrack called me on the phone and said, 'We want to come to your plant.' I thought they said Korean people. ... I had never heard of Korean refugees, so I was confused."
Anderson-Martinez had heard of refugees from Burma, though, and what took place during that initial plant visit represented the beginnings of what has since resulted in nearly 500 Karen now in the community.
"Five people came the first time, and they didn't know anyone in Worthington," Anderson-Martinez said. "They came only with their grass mats and the clothes on their backs.
"Today, it makes me so proud -- how far you've come in this short time. Look around. Everyone has camcorders, iPhones, cars, and you own your own homes. To come from such oppression ... to what you have today, it makes me very happy to be part of that."
Many of the Karen at Monday's event took part in the wrist-tying ceremony, and an English-language history of the centuries-old tradition was distributed.
"Before Buddhism or Christianity was introduced to the Karen people, our ancient ancestors and great grandmothers and grandfathers lived in fear of spirits," the historical text read. "Therefore, our parents and grandparents used white thread, which they tied on the wrists of children after calling back their spirits. It meant that the person and one's spirit would stay together and could live free from fear, and also remind us that we are Karen, we are the same group of people."
Traditional costume must be worn for the ceremony, which can only be sponsored by an elder couple who has lived together as husband and wife for their entire married lives.
"This senior couple called upon the spirits of the children to come back from the place of darkness and to stay with parents, grandparents and relatives," explained the historical text. "The senior couple then prayed that the young children would behave themselves as well, and act with good discipline and preserve our culture."
Seven materials are used during a wrist-tying ceremony, which was emceed Monday by Worthington's Ka Paw wah. They include:
* A glass of cold water, to regain peace of mind and strength and cleanse the body and mind.
* Three white threads, representing protection of the person from misfortune and evil spirits.
* Seven rice balls, which stand for being united.
* Seven triangular-shaped lumps of sticky rice, which represent solidarity and sharpness.
* Seven bananas, representing good discipline and loyalty.
* Seven branches of flowers, signifying an ability to settle and grow anywhere.
* Seven pieces of sugar cane, representing the quality of good ethics, moral values and racial progress.
Among the other non-Karen Worthington citizens attending the ceremony was LaKeyta Potter, the coordinator of the Nobles County Integration Collaborative.
"At the Collaborative, we have worked closely with the Karen community by providing opportunities, especially for the youth, to understand the importance of doing well in school and helping in their community," Potter said.
"We also want the Karen people to share their culture with the Worthington community," she continued. "Of course, I'm very honored to be at your first wrist-tying ceremony, and I'm going to help you share your culture in other ways."
Daily Globe Managing Editor Ryan McGaughey can be reached at