“As a very traditional Christian Reformed church, it’s quite unbelievable and certainly an amazing blessing from God what has happened to our church in the last number of years,” said Donna Dost, member of Maranatha CRC in Edmonton, Alta. She’s talking about the influx of Karen (Ka-wren) Christians, originally refugees from Myanmar, that began when the church sponsored one family in 2007, and the subsequent growth of a culture of blended worship at Maranatha.
Ten years after the arrival of that first family, Karen members make up about one-third of Maranatha’s membership, and ministries have progressed from English classes and introduction to Canadian life to bilingual music ministry and leadership inclusion.
“We are working to be deliberate in integrating their cultural expressions into our worship,” said Rev. Pete VanderBeek, pastoring at Maranatha as a Specialized Transitional Minister. During a service in July where 20 individuals from the Karen community were accepted as members and three children were baptized, VanderBeek wore a Karen garment over his usual Sunday clothes. He often does this for joint services that happen once a month. The other Sundays, the Karen people hold separate worship services in the Sgaw language.
Law Ple, a young Karen father who has just become an elder at Maranatha, suggested a further connection for the Sundays the groups meet separately. He asked that Karen worship leaders meet with the leaders of the English service together in the council room for pre-service prayer.
When both groups worship together, two languages are used. There is usually at least one musical number sung in Sgaw, often with projection of the English translation or a brief description. Scripture reading is often read first in English and then read by a Karen member in Sgaw. “Both groups have a rich tradition of singing hymns,” said Kathleen Seutter, the church’s worship ministry leader. For musical expression in worship, “there is a lot more that is similar between the two groups than is different,” she said.
In Sunday School “we have Karen helpers almost every week,” said Brenda Paszek, who has been involved in the Karen ministry for many years. “They are not yet confident to teach in English, but by watching us teach, they are increasing their knowledge of the Bible and learning the basics of teaching it also.”
A praise group called FISH ministers to the congregation about every six weeks. Led by Chelsea Dost and including members from both groups, FISH sings in Sgaw and English and has phonetically translated a few songs so the whole congregation can sing together when singing in Sgaw.
The church is “working more on ways where it is not obviously two different groups coming together, but one body of Christ praising God,” said Seutter.
Paszek commented that “all of life is worship, and by including Karen families in our lives and by building friendships with them and serving one another, that is the best worship of all.”