American and Karen worship together at Crescent Hill Baptist Church. (CBF photo/Joseph Williams)
American and Karen worship together at Crescent Hill Baptist Church. (CBF photo/Joseph Williams)

Mission trip transforms Kentucky church

CBF field personnel and Crescent Hill Baptist church minister with Karen refugees in Louisville, Ky., in a partnership that began with a mission trip to Thailand 12 years ago.

By Emily Holladay

When Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., sent its first mission team to paint a Karen youth hostel in Thailand in 2001, Annette Ellard and her husband, Steve Clark, began an adventure beyond their wildest dreams.

The couple and eight other volunteers traveled to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to work in partnership with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel and other ministry groups in the area. They ministered to the Karen people, an ethnic group from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, who were forced to leave their country due to extreme persecution.

“As we all worked together to paint the two-story dormitory with a band of Karen high school students and their house parents, our host missionaries pulled us all together one evening and told us to pray for each other,” Clark said. “They believed God was calling someone out of the group to full-time missionary service.”

“Annette and I thought we knew exactly who we should pray for, a soon-to-be college student studying to be a nurse,” he said. “We prayed for her every day, all the while continuing our long days of painting and making new friends.”

Throughout the trip, Clark and Ellard developed deep friendships with the Karen people. They returned to Thailand in 2002 and 2004, each time staying several weeks longer than the rest of the mission team.

After their visit in 2004, the couple sensed that God was calling them to serve as CBF field personnel. Two years later they were commissioned by the Atlanta-based Fellowship.

At the time the United States government was implementing a plan to allow thousands of Karen refugees to leave Thailand and resettle in the states. With their background in communications, Clark and Ellard were contacted by Kentucky Refugee Ministries to put together a video to help raise awareness of refugees and resettlement.

“When the director of KRM mentioned that some Karen refugees were going to be resettled in Louisville, we told her we were sure Crescent Hill Baptist would consider sponsoring a Karen refugee family,” Clark said. “The director didn’t know when the Karen would start coming to Louisville, but we were hopeful things would work out for our church to adopt a Karen family.”

When they discovered that Karen families were arriving in Louisville without an interpreter, Clark and Ellard used their contacts to secure a translator from Myanmar for the resettlement agencies in Louisville.

In February, when the interpreter met with the first Karen family, the family asked the interpreter where she went to church. The interpreter told them about Crescent Hill and asked Clark and Ellard to pick up the family for church the following Sunday.

This family spread the word about the church that welcomed Karen people. By that Sunday, Clark and Ellard had to borrow the church van to transport 20 Karen refugees to church. Within six months, the church saw more than 100 Karen people regularly attending worship. Today the Karen and American people continue their practice of worshipping together.

Jason Crosby, minister of preaching, pastoral care and administration at Crescent Hill, said the decision to worship together as one congregation was driven by the Karen.

“They were given the choice to use church facilities to worship independently from the larger body, but they said that church means one body and that we should try to make that work,” he said. “Through their presence among us, the church has been spiritually enriched and revitalized.”

While welcoming the Karen refugees offered the congregation a unique opportunity to cultivate the CBF partnership that began overseas in 2001, the journey has not always been smooth. From breaking language barriers to learning to worship in ways that would be meaningful to a diverse body, the church has had to overcome many challenges.

“I don’t think there is any way that Crescent Hill could have developed the depth of relationship that we have with the Karen without the gift of Steve and Annette,” Crosby said. “The arrival of the Karen was so sudden that the larger institution could not have kept up with the pace of change if Steve and Annette were not bridging the gap.”

Ellard said it took some time for the Americans in the congregation to see the Karen as fellow Christians coming to worship rather than people in need.

“The role of the refugee agency is resettlement; the role of the church is relationship,” she said. “And, yes, people need to worship in their own language, but these Karen children are going to be American, so we need to make a space where they can express both their Karen and American traditions.”

Clark and Ellard are not officially on staff at Crescent Hill Baptist, but they see their roles as ministers for Karen refugees. In addition to collaborating with the refugee agency and the church to help make the transition to the states a better experience, Clark and Ellard work among the refugees, helping them learn American culture and have access to the resources they need to address challenges along the way.

“Our ministry is really a ministry of availability,” Clark said. “We take calls all hours of the day and night and try to accommodate everything we can.”

“Before we started working with the Karen people, we had never dealt with food stamp issues, health insurance rights and various other issues, but we had to learn quickly,” Clark said.

On any given day, Clark and Ellard can be found helping Karen students with homework, transporting people across town, leading worship in Karen homes, sitting in court with Karen people facing traffic violations or simply listening to the refugees as friends.

“Early on, we considered ourselves the Karen 911,” Clark said. “People would call us any time there was a problem. Now, we see our role as advocates. It is a comfort for the Karen people to have someone go with them in things that are frightening, so we walk alongside them as a calming presence.”

Because the couple cannot be everywhere, they set up opportunities for others to join their ministry. Ellard started a program called “American Grandmas,” which pairs up American women with Karen women who are pregnant. These grandmas accompany the expectant moms on hospital visits to assist with communication.

For the Karen women who came to the United States without a mother, these relationships allow them to experience the support that a mother would bring.

Clark said those and other relationships that have developed over the past seven years are “still growing and unfolding.”

“We can only see from where we have come to where we are now,” he said. “I think the target for God’s plan goes far beyond what is being accomplished in the present, and we are watching with eager hearts and eyes to see all the remarkable things God will unfold from the tiny mustard seed of a moment in Chiang Mai, Thailand, over a decade ago.”

— Emily Holladay writes for CBF communications. This article is adapted from the August/September 2013 edition of fellowship! magazine and is reprinted here with permission.