People of God: Karen find spiritual home at Indian Lake Baptist

WORTHINGTON -- It's been more than 135 years since Indian Lake Baptist Church was founded by a group of Swedish immigrants. Now, a new generation of immigrants is infusing new life and vitality into the small rural congregation. Members of the lo...

Karen at Indian Lake Baptist

WORTHINGTON -- It's been more than 135 years since Indian Lake Baptist Church was founded by a group of Swedish immigrants.

Now, a new generation of immigrants is infusing new life and vitality into the small rural congregation. Members of the local Karen Baptist community have been using the Indian Lake facilities for more than a year.

"A couple of their leaders came out here and met me," explained Doug Roth, pastor at Indian Lake Baptist. "They were looking for a church that would welcome them, a place where they could establish a worship service of their own. We were surprised by the turnout -- at the first service there were probably 30, by the second Sunday, it was close to 100."

The members of Indian Lake Baptist opened their doors -- and their arms -- to the Karen people. They have "united as one congregation," said Roth, with the Karen attending both the 10:30 a.m. English service and a noon service in their own language each Sunday. They have their own pastor, Eh Ler Plaw.

Originally from Mongolia, the Karen is one of the largest hill tribes in southeast Asia -- a group of ethnic peoples who reside primarily in southern and southeastern Burma (Myanmar), but are also found in Laos and Thailand.


"The Karen are recognized as the first people to come down there (to Burma)," explained Eh Ler Plaw. "They were enslaved for many years by another ethnic group."

Throughout their history in Burma, the Karen have been persecuted by other Burmese factions. The Karen were some of the earliest converts to Christianity in the predominantly Buddhist country, opening their hearts to the message of salvation delivered by Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson in the early 1800s.

"Because of him, the Karen people got the truth and their eyes were opened up," said Eh Ler Plaw. "When the British people colonized Burma, the Karen helped the British because they want their freedom. After World War II, the British promised to help the Karen, but they do nothing to help them."

More recently, due to ethnic cleansing in Burma, the Karen have been forced to flee, becoming refugees in camps in Thailand. Members of Eh Ler Plaw's own family were targeted and killed by the Burmese military. He spent eight years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to the U.S.

"When I was in the refugee camp, I studied for four years, college theology," he explained, adding that he used his education to become a teacher for two years.

Eh Ler Plaw first lived in Illinois before moving west to Worthington, because his sister was here working for JBS. He estimates there are between 300 and 400 Karen currently living in the Worthington area, most working for JBS. About 160 have found a spiritual home at Indian Lake Baptist, while others are attending services at Worthington's First Baptist Church or the Lao Christian Church in Bigelow.

Within their newfound church community, the Karen have openly shared their stories, related Roth.

"It's been a wonderful opportunity to listen to a lot of their testimonies about what they experienced under persecution in Burma," Roth said. "One told a story about how a group was caught in the woods, and two men were beheaded and a third survived. To this day, he doesn't know why they didn't behead him, too. They have shared about their walk with God, and how they trust Him with everything."


Eh Ler Plaw estimates that only 15 to 20 percent of his people have escaped oppression in Burma; the rest remain there, subject to starvation, rape and death. He has both a sister and a brother still in Burma and has no contact with them.

But the Karen who have come to the United States are seeking a new life in Worthington, a place where they can raise their families, practice their strong faith openly and become part of the community. Some of the Karen families have already bought homes here.

"We, the Karen people, we come here in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and we believe we can help," in the community, said Eh Ler Plaw. "We can be working together in cooperation here in Worthington. We want to show that we are one in the Lord."

"The majority of the Karen people have been in Worthington for a little over a year," added Roth. "They really want the community to know they are a very peaceful, loving, compassionate people who want to be part of our community. Last year, at Christmas, they called me up and asked if it would be OK if they went caroling. ... They have a tremendous singing talent and are willing to sing in the public arena. If some churches in town would like them to come and sing, they would love doing that."

The cooperative effort between the Indian Lake Baptist members and the Karen people has benefitted both, Roth said. The Indian Lake parishioners have "fallen in love" with the Karen people and initiated efforts to help them assimilate into the community, including providing warm winter clothing and teaching English classes.

"I always say they have 'risen to the challenge,'" Roth said about his congregation. "And the Karen have been such a blessing to the Indian Lake Baptist people, too. They have so little, and they give so much."

"And we say, we have so little and get so much," added Eh Ler Plaw.

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