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Karen church gives building same purpose but different congregation

The Zion Karen Baptist Church found its home by moving out of a house.

That’s where it was in the beginning, when four families began worshipping together in 2012, said Sa Ba Taw, assistant pastor.

At its start, it was Albert Lea Karen Baptist Church. Zion came later.

Now, the congregation is between 150 to 200 strong.

“The church’s (main) purpose is to enable many of the immigrant families who do not speak and know English to have a place to gather as followers of Christ and worship God,” Taw said.

The church’s growth has mirrored the growth of the Karen population in Albert Lea.

Congregation members at the Zion Karen Baptist Church sing along to a hymn Jan. 27 with music either in books or on their phones. Sarah Kocher/Albert Lea Tribune

“The Karen community in Albert Lea I see as vibrant,” he said.

Taw said many Karen citizens who move to Albert Lea either come to join family members or to get a job — many at Select Foods. Many come from the Twin Cities area, he said.

Taw himself moved to Albert Lea from St. Paul in 2012, and joined the congregation then. When the church gathered more families in 2013 and 2014, it moved.

“There were more families coming, you know?” Taw said. “So they — we — have more people. So, the place they used to worship at their house doesn’t work for them, so they (were) looking for space.”

That space came in the form of a mobile home Taw said the church purchased for $5,000.

“They just (used) it for a place to worship,” he said.

Taw was the youth leader in the mobile home before he moved to Elgin, Illinois, to attend Judson University, an evangelical Christian liberal arts institution where he received his undergraduate degree in Christian ministry. He returned to Albert Lea and accepted the role as assistant pastor.

‘He answered our prayer’

On Jan. 27 — a Sunday morning — winter coats in stoic winter colors open to pepper the pews of Zion Karen Baptist Church in brighter hues.

There are usually more than the just under 100 in attendance, Taw said, but he suspected weather kept some away.

The sanctuary’s slanted floor leads down to a stage, behind which a choir loft is populated only with crowded chairs. The worship space is punctuated in touches of dark wood, from the beams running around the perimeter of the room to the pews themselves.

It was the youth ministry’s turn to lead the service. Several groupings of children and young adults trade off microphones, singing and worshipping in Karen.

As Taw, in a sky blue shirt with darker tie underneath a traditional Karen shirt, gave the sermon, he tapped an orange pen against the open Bible in his hand for emphasis.

All through the service, the undercurrent of young voices and moving feet provides a steady, quiet rumble of activity and life to the building.

That building is the former First Baptist Church, still emblazoned with the AZ-One Community Center name.

Before moving into the building on Clark Street, the mobile home had between 50 to 70 people worshipping there.

“When the numbers kept growing, we (didn’t) have enough space in the parking space, so we pray, you know, for God to provide us a new space and then later, he answered our prayer and we were all invited by our First Baptist Church .. the Senior Pastor Clayton Balsley to worship every Sunday here,” Taw said.

Balsley, now senior pastor at Bridge Community Church, said he would give messages to the church, translated through Taw, at Zion Karen Baptist Church when it was still located in the mobile home. He said the church approached him about using the First Baptist Church building for worship.

Zion Karen Baptist Church offered to meet after services for First Baptist were over — their service is still set later in the day, with a 12:30 p.m. start. But that fall, First Baptist Church had already made the decision to no longer have worship at that building as it moved toward a combination with Calvary Baptist Church. Balsley said it was a “natural fit” for the fledgling church to take over the building.

“We want to build God’s kingdom, and obviously, there’s a whole group of citizens here in our community that need a church,” Balsley said. “We kind of see it as a local mission for us. That’s how we kind of looked at it from day one.”

When First Baptist Church joined with Bridge Community Church, the building itself traded hands. First shift, First Baptist Church. Second shift, Zion Karen Baptist Church.

They never put the building up for sale, Balsley said.

“We knew they were, as time went on, they were kind of looking for a place, so we talked to them about if they wanted to take over,” he said.

Balsley said the building price would have been close to $400,000, but they cut the price almost in half, to over $200,000. Since the closing in October, he said he has been helping the church work through what it means to take care of the building. He still drops in on services occasionally.

“It is as a blessing for us Karen to receive this opportunity and this place, this building, because if we have to buy for the original price … it is very expensive,” Taw said. “But it is a blessing.”

Zion Karen Baptist Church closed on the building in 2018.

“It is our church,” Taw said. “… Later, we decided, you know, we would need to put a sign, ‘Bought,’ saying, ‘Karen Baptist Church.’”

‘It’s our own now’

The community connection continues past the church building. Bridge Community Church offers up property for Karen families, many of which Taw said come from an agricultural lifestyle, to garden on.

“They want our Karen families, you know, to use the space for growing plants, vegetables,” Taw said.

Karen families who would like to garden can do so, free, by speaking with a Zion Karen Baptist Church leader about how much space they need.

Balsley said he wants to see more of a relationship build between the two congregations.

“That’s something in the future I’d like to see us do: more interacting,” he said.

But Zion Karen Baptist Church tries to provide more for its community members than gardens. After all, Taw said, it exists “to serve the local community by engaging, encouraging and enriching the Karen people who live in Albert Lea by introducing and directing a life-changing Christian journey.” That is one of the church goals.

So at the church, now given new life by the Karen Baptist community, the Karen population can receive the ministry of tax return help, specifically for those who don’t speak English, Taw said.

Then there’s ministry in the forms of help with car insurance, applying for citizenship, dealing with Social Security, applying for food assistance and deciphering government mailings and medical documents.

“If they can come here, we will help them,” Taw said.

Now that the church building belongs to them, Zion Karen Baptist Church members can use the building for more than they did when they were borrowing it, said church member Bway Shee.

“After we purchased this church, it’s our own now,” Shee said.

Therefore, those who need to practice for Sunday’s service can come on Saturday. She sees still more potential with the building.

“Now that we have a place, we can invite other churches to have a fellowship,” Shee said.

During the service itself on Sunday, different ministries rotate through leading worship. One Sunday may be the women’s ministry, the next elders, then children, then youth, Taw said.

“It’s kind of different than other churches,” Taw said.

Before service is Sunday school for the children’s ministry.

“Our congregation is growing not just because of the church members, but because of the children,” Taw said.

He estimates the congregation has 30 to 40 children.

It’s in this segment of the population Taw has hopes for the church.

His hope is “for the next generation to grow up and help them maintain their identity — which is in Christ and their language, their cultures — and to keep this church and to keep this space and to keep helping the community and to have a relationship with people who live in this community and support whoever needs help,” he said.

Balsley said Bridge Community Church continues to pray for the Zion Karen Baptist Church congregation.

“As a church here, we’re just praying for them, and that they will continue to grow and reach people for Christ, because that’s ultimately what it’s all about,” he said. “And obviously, the mission field is all over, whether it’s with the Karen or here in the community … (we) pray that God will use them in a powerful way here.”

And as his church grows, Taw said it is now in a building he believes can accommodate that.

“For me personally, I feel like it is a blessing, huge blessing for me,” Taw said. “I think for other people as well, because before we (moved), we keep praying to see where, you know, God will lead us, and then he answered our prayer. So, he (gave) us this place, so it is amazing and astonishing to see what God did for our Karen people here.”

From that space, the church intends to exist as a place for Karen families to receive the support they need to build a strong Christian home and be a good example for others, Taw said. It’s written into the church objectives.

“So here in Albert Lea, we can live and speak freely in our Karen language and worship God openly in Zion Baptist Church,” Taw said.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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