Thi Ri Shwe’s memories now of Christian worship back in her native Myanmar are filled with hurry and worry.
Hiding in the jungle or moving to refugee camps in Thailand to escape persecution, Shwe remembers pausing for prayer.
“It wasn’t really worship, like here,” she said.
When Shwe immigrated to America almost two years ago, she came to Wilmington from Virginia looking to find a job speaking her native Karen language and helping Interfaith Refugee Ministry as a case worker.
And soon she also found a worship community. Now each Sunday, Shwe is the interpreter at a growing Burmese Baptist mission at First Baptist Church. Many of the Burmese attendees came to North Carolina through the Interfaith Refugee Ministry, an office of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program that resettles refugees (legal immigrants allowed to work) in Wilmington and its surrounding areas. During First Baptist Church’s 10 a.m. Sunday school hour, about 75-100 Burmese men, women and many, many children crowd into the wedding chapel for worship.
As light filtered through the brilliant chapel windows crafted by National Cathedral artist Rowan LeCompte, the Burmese Baptist service last Sunday had much the same rhythm as any Baptist worship time – only in their native tongue.
The mission’s choir sang an offertory hymn as families chose one member to run up front to drop a tithe on the red velvet bottom of a gold bowl. A quartet sang another song. The congregation’s appointed pastor gave a message, and the members sang a Burmese version of "Come thy Fount of Every Blessing" after the benediction prayer.
The hymns are so familiar to them, they don’t use hymnals.
The service each week knits the Burmese community together in Wilmington.
‘’We have some families who really have faith in God. Some, not very much, but when they are sad or lonely, and you ask, what do you do? They say, ‘We pray,’” Shwe said.
The congregation even will mark a member’s birthday with a prayer service at their home, said Robin Manning, a church member who volunteered last year at Interfaith Refugee Ministry and ended up bringing family after family to First Baptist with her.
In her time working with the Burmese people in Wilmington, Manning has fallen in love. She volunteered to help the Burmese after she returned from a mission trip to Guatemala. Now, her children and some of the Burmese children regularly fish and boogie board at the beach together, a relationship she calls “the sweetest friendship.”
“They have something I think that we’re lacking,” she said of the Burmese community. “It’s faith and joy. There’s a life there that’s so strong and active. They see things with new eyes.”
On Sunday, Manning toted an empty, white five gallon bucket and an acrylic canvas painting she had crafted of a calm sea rushing onto a beach. Shwe interpreted for her up front as Manning gave her devotion.
She asked the congregation to write all of their worries, sadness and sin on her painting in permanent marker, imagining they were giving those thoughts to the Holy Spirit.
And one by one, members of the congregation filed up front to write on the canvas.
Manning settled back in her pew at the back with many of the children crowded around her. Boys behind her pew leaned over Manning’s shoulder to peek at a muted video game a little girl played next to her.
After the worship service, the members filed downstairs into the fellowship hall to have a special back-to-school lunch. Interfaith Refugee Ministry director Jamie Mills said they have 40 children entering New Hanover County Schools this year, the largest group ever.
Over chicken and rice, worship leader Aye Kay Htoo told Shwe how leading the mission’s music each Sunday makes her happy.
“The church helped her family when they first came here,” Shwe said, interpreting Htoo’s story. “The church gave the deposit for the apartment her family lives in.”
Across the room, Manning was surrounded by school-aged children again, smiling and handing out backpacks and asking them to pick out and try on black and white checkered skate shoes for school.
“You wonder if being a missionary really helps, if you’re really making a difference,” she said. “The other day my children told me they want to go to Thailand and Burma to be missionaries. They said, ‘We want to be heroes, too.’”