When people talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, the word “unprecedented” often comes up. But for Karen Baptists who grew up in Thailand or Burma, there is a lot about the pandemic that is familiar.
Catching a disease that will potentially kill you? For the Karen living in refugee camps in Thailand or the mountains of Burma, malaria is almost an annual occurrence. There is no vaccine for malaria and malaria parasites have mutated to become resistant to anti-malarial drugs. While for most Karen people malaria is akin to getting the flu, every monsoon hundreds of people in Burma and Thailand die from malaria.
Walking through empty streets? Curfews in refugee camps in Thailand or free fire zones in Burma mean that deserted streets are familiar, and the risk of catching a virus seems less immediate than being shot or treading on a landmine. At the start of the restrictions, a Catholic priest friend who lived through the civil war in Sri Lanka sent a message to my wife: “Don’t worry – we survived war – we will survive this too”.
But for younger Karen who were born in Australia or who came here when they were young, COVID-19 has been unprecedented. For many it has been difficult and stressful. Karen primary and high school students have had to change to online learning. Many Karen students did not have laptops and received them from their schools, and newly arrived Karen parents do not have the English or digital technology skills to help their children with online learning.
For two years I have helped lead a youth bible study group that meets on Friday nights in the Wyndham area. When social distancing restrictions were introduced we suspended the group, but then started again using Zoom.
Moving to Zoom wasn’t easy. In Karen culture physical contact is the glue of relationships. A handshake can last a conversation. A hand on the shoulder while talking to someone is normal. The traditional Karen greeting is “Ner Aw Mee Wi Lee Ar”. Have you finished eating? To meet together without sharing food and drink seemed unthinkable. Adjusting to meeting online was a cultural as well as a technological challenge.
Even before COVID-19 we had been planning to use Fuller Youth Institute’s “Faith in an Anxious World” program. But as life changed in ways we could not imagine, a program that teaches youth to use their faith to deal with stress and anxiety could not have been more relevant. The youth learn about their faith at church, and learn about mental health at school, but this was the first time their faith and mental health came together in this way.
One of the advantages of the program is that our youth have been able to present and lead each session. At a time when youth are being disempowered, having 13-year old and 14-year old youth present each session was incredibly empowering.
As we learned the importance of connecting, we have started meeting online at other times. During the week the youth met on Zoom to watch K-Pop videos. We have had a Saturday night film night. The youth have started an Instagram page, Teen Gospel Paradise, to spread the message of Christian faith and mental health online.
What’s next? Our group has a strong missional focus and before the pandemic we had built relationships with Muslim and Sikh communities. So in May we are doing Global Interaction’s May Mission Month. We don’t know how long restrictions will last or when we will be able to meet face-to-face again, but until we do we can continue our fellowship online.
Article contributed by Martin West, Westgate Baptist Community Church.