In the last twelve years, Trinity has quietly been part of one of the great ministry stories in the LCMS. What began as an effort in 2009 to help a single family of Karenni refugees integrate into American society exploded into a new mission field on our doorstep.
Several hundred additional Karenni people, all from refugee camps in Thailand, followed that family to Milwaukee. The adults had been driven from their homes in eastern Myanmar (Burma) 15 years earlier; the children were born in the camps. Some of them knew Jesus, but many did not.
Gradually, the Holy Spirit created opportunities to spread the Gospel. A Bible study grew into an adult baptism, and worship services with more than sixty people crowded into a small apartment followed. Eventually, four LCMS churches banned together to offer weekly services at Lutheran Chapel of the Cross, on Whitnall Ave. on Milwaukee’s South Side. Two Karenni young adults, one of which was Su Reh, translated each week.
Volunteers from those four churches gathered at the church to offer Sunday School, English as a Second Language, and Citizenship classes after the service each week. During that time, the high school students formed a separate group to receive homework support. Su Reh, then a Buddhist, was in that group, and it was there that he learned more about Jesus. In the years that followed, he graduated from Milwaukee Lutheran High School and then moved on to Concordia University.
During this time, dozens of Karenni people were baptized and/or confirmed, many Karenni children transferred to Trinity Lutheran School, and a large group became citizens. Some people, including Su Reh, chose to “Americanize” their names in that process. He decided to go through life as Daniel.
Although this unexpected ministry had many positive outcomes, we also realized limits. Sharing this ministry between a rotation of pastors has helped us to sustain it for more than a decade, but it also severely limited the ability to build relationships and serve as shepherds, especially if a translator were required.
Simultaneously, churches of other denominations had leaders who spoke languages more familiar to the Karenni people. This resulted in unfortunate divisions between Karenni Christians, a vastly shrunken Lutheran congregation, and the great likelihood that many Karenni people have fallen through the cracks or fallen away from the church altogether as a result of the division. All the while, the English-speaking pastors have been looking on, wishing the issues could be understood and addressed. If only there were a Lutheran pastor who spoke the Karenni language!
Meanwhile, Daniel saw this need and decided to devote his life to filling the gap. He graduated from Concordia and headed to the St. Louis Seminary, with the intent of becoming what is believed to be the first Karenni Lutheran pastor in the world. He is scheduled to graduate in May of 2023.
Together with Lutheran Chapel of the Cross, Beautiful Savior Lutheran, and Concordia Seminary, Trinity Freistadt Lutheran Church has the goal to bring Daniel back to Milwaukee to serve first as a vicar, then as a pastor to the Karenni people here. With a dedicated pastor, the Karenni congregation will be positioned to begin overcoming some of the challenges that we have been unable to address, and with time, guidance, and support, what was once just a Bible Study in a living room will become an independent congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The Trinity congregation has voted to bring Daniel back to Milwaukee after the 2021-2022 academic year for his vicarage. He will be mentored by our pastors, and upon successful completion of his vicarage in the summer of 2023, he will be called to serve as the primary Karenni Ministry pastor, while continuing to help at Trinity for the time being.